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August 27, 2014

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Only L.A. traffic worse than Vegas’: Study cites need for more mass-transit options

Stuck in traffic? Again? You are part of a statistic that places Las Vegas high in yet another unenviable national ranking.

The Las Vegas area is second-worst in the nation for traffic congestion and lack of mass-transit alternatives, a national think tank study released today finds.

The Washington-based Surface Transportation Policy Project ranked cities by traffic tie-ups and drivers' inability to skip congestion by using mass transit, walking or riding a bicycle.

"Las Vegas is No. 2 as far as having the worst rush-hour traffic and no way to avoid it," Barbara McCann, director of the project's quality of life campaign, said. Only Los Angeles was worse.

The project, a coalition of environmental, planning and mass-transit advocacy organizations, called the ranking a "congestion burden index."

The answer lies in more transit options for more of the population, more of the time, McCann said.

That means not just more buses and other mass transit, but also "streetscapes that are inviting for walking, bicycling and other things besides cars."

"We've paid a whole lot of attention to creating an inviting driving environment, and that's great," she said. "Now we should pay the same type of attention to providing a good environment for taking (mass) transit, and walking and bicycling."

The study is based on federal, state and local data collected by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, a research agency.

The institute also found that Las Vegas-area commuters spent on average 36 percent of their travel time stuck in congested traffic.

The institute found that the average Las Vegas motorist spent 21 hours stuck in traffic in 1999, up from 15 hours a decade earlier. The delays because of traffic cost each person $370 in increased fuel expenses, the institute found.

McCann said new road building and widening, such as work on the Las Vegas Beltway, Interstate 15 and U.S. 95, won't provide the answer.

"Places that build the most roads don't have a lot of success in keeping congestion down," she said. "The best route for providing relief is to provide more choices, not more roads."

Local environmentalists said the national study backs up their efforts.

"It points to the fact that if we want to relieve our congestion and make transportation in Las Vegas better, we're going to have to look beyond road building," Jessica Hodge, Southern Nevada organizer for the Sierra Club, said. "The old road-building mentality isn't working."

The club is promising court action to stop two major road projects slated for the Las Vegas area: widening of U.S. 95 in northwest Las Vegas, and a highway bypass planned to go over the Colorado River south of Hoover Dam.

Shashi Nambisan, director of UNLV's Transportation Research Center, said some congestion is natural in an area that is growing as quickly as Southern Nevada. Some traffic tie-ups are because of construction to increase road capacity, he said.

"We have a few hot spots, or hot corridors, where we will see significant congestion," he said.

The jury is out on whether road construction will lead to long-term improvements in traffic congestion, Nambisan said. But mass transit and alternatives to automobiles are an essential element of relieving traffic problems, he said.

They also are a key in reducing air pollution in the Las Vegas Valley, raising the stakes for area transportation planners.

Local officials are under a federal edict to clean up the air. They promised, as part of the solution, to bring more mass transit on line, which will allow the region to continue receiving millions in federal transportation assistance.

"We don't have any choice," Regional Transportation Commission General Manager Jacob Snow said. "We not only have to continue doing what we're doing, we have to do a better job. We have to attract the people out there out of their automobiles."

Two upcoming projects could help, Snow said: a $650 million monorail system along the Strip, to be completed by 2004, and a $17 million "rubber-tire light-rail" system for the Las Vegas Boulevard North corridor from Nellis Boulevard to downtown Las Vegas by 2003.

But efforts may be hampered by a limited budget, and money could get tighter, especially if legislators in Carson City follow through with a plan to take local funding to pay for teacher raises.

"We're just challenged to keep up with all of this growth with the resources that we have," Snow said. "We'll be fortunate if we can just hold our own. In the meantime the growth just keeps coming in."

The agency appears to be shy several billion dollars of what is needed to fully meet the region's transportation needs over the next two decades, he said.

The RTC is doing what it can locally, Snow said: saving money and cutting costs wherever possible -- he hopes without affecting service.

The RTC is cutting three bus routes this month, the first cuts in its eight-year history. Snow said one of the biggest concerns right now is the escalating cost of fuel.

Federal policymakers say they also are aware of the challenge.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., plans to work with local and federal agencies to find new funding for mass transit and transportation alternatives, press secretary Nathan Naylor, said.

Reid "strongly believes mass transit is the keystone for what is going to hold a solution," Naylor said.

The agency has to confront its challenges, Snow said.

"We've got to look at more and better transit," he said. "We've got to look to pedestrian and bicycle structure improvements. We're looking at the monorail. We've got to have those kinds of things.

"Our job as a metropolitan planning organization is to come up with the right balance of projects to clean up the air," he said. "We cannot just depend on building roadways to do that."

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