Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2019

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Growth, accessibility, sustainability: Why the public favored light rail for Las Vegas

Bus Rapid Transit

RTC

An artist’s rendering shows bus rapid transit service along Maryland Parkway.

Transit should be more accessible for persons with disabilities. The valley is too polluted and needs to reduce transportation emissions. Las Vegas must keep up with its rapid growth to continue to serve residents and tourists alike.

Those were some of the most common threads among the 548 comments submitted to the Regional Transportation Commission that expressed support for light rail along Maryland Parkway.

The RTC solicited feedback on the transit future of Maryland Parkway in February and March, asking residents to weigh in on whether the transit hub would best be served by enhancements to the existing Route 109 bus service, the establishment of a bus rapid transit system or light rail line, or no change to the current bus system.

Excluding those who didn’t favor any of the options, 72 percent of public commenters said they would prefer light rail for the 8.7-mile stretch of Maryland Parkway that passes UNLV, McCarran International Airport, downtown Las Vegas and the medical district.

Despite public support for light rail, the RTC Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in April to develop a bus rapid transit system along the corridor. For commissioners — the board consists of two representatives from Clark County and from the city of Las Vegas, and one from Henderson, Boulder City, North Las Vegas and Mesquite — the question ultimately came down to cost.

“I was for the light rail,” said Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, an RTC Board member. “I just know how our budgets are right now. We’re really in a perilous position, all of us.”

Construction costs for light rail would have been close to $1 billion, according to the RTC’s latest estimates, while bus-rapid transit would cost an estimated $345 million, said David Swallow, senior director of engineering and technology for the RTC. In addition, annual operating costs for light-rail would have been $11.5 million while operating costs for bus rapid transit would be $7.2 million, compared to $5.9 million per year for the current bus system.

In public comments submitted to the RTC, however, many suggested that the economic benefits associated with light rail would make the project worth the money in the long run. “If we are to one day be the sports and entertainment capital of the world, it’s time we stop talking and [take] action to secure our economic future,” said one commenter who favored light rail.

Many, including some business owners in the area, expressed hope that light rail could revitalize the Maryland Parkway corridor and encourage economic development in the area.

“It seems to me that the underlying intent of this project is to reshape the Maryland Parkway corridor, redefine what it means to the city and breathe new life into the adjacent neighborhoods,” one comment said. “If that's the intent, then only something as bold and unique as light rail will succeed in making people and businesses think differently about the corridor and neighborhoods.”

Approximately 9,000 people ride the Route 109 bus every day, making it one of the most well-used bus routes in Southern Nevada. Bus rapid transit would increase ridership to an estimated 13,000 riders per day, while light rail would push ridership up to 16,100 people per day, the RTC estimates.

However, Swallow emphasized that ridership is subject to fluctuation. He noted that the RTC has seen a decrease in ridership and fare revenue recently due to the popularity of rideshare services like Uber and Lyft. The addition of other new transportation technologies to the region in the coming years could create more uncertainty about ridership along Maryland Parkway.

“That’s part of what concerned the board about moving forward with the rail option at this time,” he said.

Nonetheless, many of those who favored light rail in the public comments said the system would be more attractive to riders, including young people, people with disabilities and tourists, as some perceive rail to be cleaner and safer than buses. Commenters also said they’d rather support a system like light rail that would produce fewer emissions than bus rapid transit.

Additionally, while rapid transit buses would move more quickly than existing buses, light rail would be the most efficient for getting around.

“Personally, I would use light rail but not buses,” one commenter said.

Light rail still up for debate

Despite the board’s vote for bus rapid transit, Swallow said the RTC and the board have not ruled out light rail for Maryland Parkway.

Preliminary engineering on the project is scheduled to begin in January 2020, but that work could be applied to either a bus rapid transit or light rail system. By the end of 2020, when the RTC expects to complete preliminary engineering and finalize its decision, the agency should also have updated cost estimates for light rail and rapid transit.

“We can present that to the board, and frankly the community, and say, ‘Do we want to revisit this?’” Swallow said.

Right now, the costs of the project remain in flux, Swallow said. Fuel costs for the RTC continue to decrease, as the agency has switched its bus fuel from diesel to natural gas.

Federal funding is also an uncertain factor, Swallow said. The RTC hopes to obtain financial support from the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grant Program, which in the past often awarded up to 50 percent of the upfront capital costs associated with a transportation project.

But under the Trump administration, that agency has been offering a lower match — about 35 or 30 percent, Swallow said — and has supported few light rail projects.

“They tend to like the bus rapid transit better,” Swallow said.

If the administration changes course, or if a new president is elected next year, it is possible that the RTC could more reliably look to federal funding for light rail.

Regardless, Swallow said there are some benefits to bus rapid transit over light rail, which weren’t lost on the 96 commenters who favored bus rapid transit. In addition to costing less, rapid transit buses would have their own lane but wouldn’t be connected to an overhead rail. That setup could reduce disruption in the case of an accident.

“If there’s construction or a fender bender in the transit lane, buses can maneuver around, whereas rail would be stuck until that incident was cleared,” Swallow said.

Whatever moves forward on Maryland Parkway will be a positive asset to the community, Swallow added, noting that the bus rapid transit and light rail proposals include the addition of dedicated bike lanes, landscaping enhancements and public art.

“No matter what the choice, we’re going to deliver something that the community can feel positive about and that’s going to improve mobility options,” Swallow said. “It’s not just the transit we’re doing. We’re looking to improve the whole experience.”