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November 27, 2014

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LV looks at private monorail system

The chief executive of a Hawaii-based monorail developer says he's willing to finance and build Las Vegas' proposed 15.6-mile monorail and operate it privately, saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

Transco CEO Ron Watson, who made the proposal Thursday, says he's under contract to build monorails in 14 cities in China.

Watson made his offer at a Clark County fixed guideway committee meeting. The Regional Transportation Commission staff and commissioners promised to examine Watson's plan and verify his credentials.

Watson doesn't have a system operating anywhere in the world yet and had a proposal to build one in Honolulu rejected.

RTC officials agreed that a privately operated system would be appealing financially, but they stopped short of endorsing Transco's plan until it could be further reviewed.

"There weren't too many specifics," said Kurt Weinrich, executive director of the RTC. "But if they can do what they propose, it would be a win-win situation for everybody. Whether they can deliver is another question."

Weinrich said his staff would set up meetings with some of Watson's personnel to discuss specific issues.

"One of the things we'll have to determine is if there's any other interest," Weinrich said. "If one entity can do this, are there others out there? We'll have to see if this needs to be competitive."

David Wood, a Henderson city councilman who serves as chairman of the fixed guideway subcommittee, expressed some of the same skepticism, but also said he was interested in getting more details about Watson and his company.

Asked if Watson's presentation was a bombshell, Wood said, "A bombshell? We'll have to see if it's a dud or the real thing."

Bob Broadbent of Broadbent Consulting Inc., which has coordinated the MGM Grand-Bally's monorail, said there are still many unanswered questions about the proposal.

"I think the RTC should keep an open mind on it," Broadbent said. "The issue is a long, long ways from resolution."

Broadbent predicted other presentations would be made to the RTC in the future.

A spokesman for a California-based monorail consulting firm said he has heard of the technology proposed by Watson, but not of Transco.

"There's a system using the technology in Florida," said a representative of Jakes Associates Inc. of San Jose. "But I don't know that it's big enough to meet Las Vegas' needs."

Transco's monorail system uses a British company's design with trains comprised of up to nine vehicles capable of moving more than 750 passengers at a time. The futuristic vehicles, propelled by electric motors, glide quietly at a top speed of 30 mph on pneumatic rubber tires over concrete or steel guideway beams.

Watson said the Las Vegas system, which initially would run from Cashman Center through downtown and the Las Vegas Strip to McCarran International Airport, would cost about $25 million to $30 million a mile to build. Trains and 22 stations would bring the total to about $500 million.

He said the monorail system he envisions would cost six to eight times less than a light rail system and all financing for construction of his monorail would be private.

Watson said he is in various stages of development of 14 monorail systems in China, including a multiline operation in Shanghai. Other systems are planned for Beijing and he has a letter of intent to proceed in Chengdu. The company faces a May 2000 deadline for getting one of the systems operational.

In the monorail design industry since 1989, Watson said he has been studying Las Vegas' progress toward developing a fixed-guideway system and was attracted to it because of the "easy alignment" of the project.

"They've done a super job here," Watson said of the RTC's efforts to date. He added that he liked the city's can-do attitude, easy working conditions and knowledgable administrators.

While working in China has its benefits -- labor is cheap, Watson said -- most of the administrators are "50 years behind the rest of the world" in learning about the technology.

The RTC learned earlier this year that it would receive funding for preliminary engineering and the development of an environmental impact statement. The first public hearings on impact statements are scheduled later this month.

One of the biggest decisions related to designing the city's system is the selection of technology for the project. Options include monorail, light rail and personal rapid transit systems.

Technologically, the Transco monorail is similar to the MGM Grand-Bally's system, which is being engineered for expansion. But the systems probably would not be compatible.

Broadbent said the Transco trains are larger, requiring a guideway 40 to 50 inches wide while the MGM-Bally's monorail has a 26-inch track.

"The Severn-Lamb (the British supplier) trains are different, they're experts on bigger, heavier trains," Broadbent said. "They're also longer, so I don't know if our stations, which are 300 feet long, could accommodate those trains."

"It really would be great if they would use our system," Watson said.

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