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September 16, 2014

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Residents speak out on RTC’s light rail plan

The Regional Transportation Commission encourages members of the public to speak up during four public meetings next month. For more information, visit the 'C's fixed guideway Web site at www.rfguideway.com.

Dozens of residents turned out Thursday evening to support or criticize the Regional Transportation Commission's proposal to add light rail to the region's transit options.

Their claps, groans and sarcastic snickering are the kinds of reactions that have occurred in city after city where the often controversial and expensive transit projects have taken shape. And they're the kind of noises Portland's TriMet spokeswoman Ann Becklund knows well.

Heated debate over that system, frequently pointed to as a model of how a light rail system could work in Southern Nevada, began years before contractors there laid the first track, she said.

"It was a very familiar kind of thing when a new kind of community improvement comes in," she said. "You typically see this kind of thing."

Like the increasingly heated debate that appears to be brewing here, planners in the Oregon city saw staunch opposition to an expansion of the line that ran through Portland's exclusive Goose Hollow neighborhood.

Becklund, who attended the RTC's fixed guideway steering committee's June meeting, said the residents' comments were "very familiar" when compared to those she heard when conducting a string of meetings with affluent homeowners before the TriMet expansion opened in 1998.

Like Becklund, RTC officials say they welcome the criticism that will help them negotiate a plan palatable to residents on both sides of the tracks.

Others, including two new additions to the board who until Thursday were nonvoting members, say too much one-sided attention has been given to a pricey plan that could turn into a money pit for taxpayers.

Homeowners living on once-rural land along existing tracks where a light rail could run have accused the RTC of not doing enough to warn them of the committee's existence or of upcoming meetings. They say they either did not receive mailers sent by the agency or threw them away, thinking they were junk mail.

The RTC, in response to concerns vocalized by the committee, launched in July an advertising campaign that includes billboards and radio and television spots, spokeswoman Ingrid Reisman said.

"There is increased knowledge (of the discussions) in the community, both in people supporting and in people opposing," she said. "Both sides are becoming more vocal."

The RTC has also launched a Web site, www.rfguideway.com, with a scrolling schedule of upcoming meetings and links to detailed outlines of each technology now under consideration.

The committee is expected to begin evaluating each of four separate alternatives for the 33-mile route next month. An extension to the Metropolitan Area Express service -- a sleek bus that because it runs in its own dedicated lane is also considered a fixed guideway vehicle -- is also on the table.

Four public meetings are scheduled next month before the committee makes a formal recommendation, which is expected in October, Reisman said. The group can also recommend that the RTC focus its efforts on expanding existing bus service to mirror the region's growth patterns.

Among those hardening their positions are Green Valley homeowners Beverly Dix and Wendy Lee Meoz, who joined the board as nonvoting "ef-officio" members in June but have since been given a binding say on the board.

Dix and Meoz, both self-described fans of the existing MAX service, have said the light rail would be an inflexible choice that would never meet its ridership predictions.

"The MAX is really an elegant system," Dix told the committee during its regularly scheduled meeting Thursday. "I thought it was beautifully constructed and really the way to go."

Their distaste for a light rail project runs counter to a Strategic Surveys study completed in June that found that almost three quarters of residents living within a mile of the proposed rail project would support it.

If approved, the current proposal for the 33-mile route would eventually link Henderson with a planned UNLV satellite campus in North Las Vegas. Estimated costs for the system vary significantly based on the type of technology, but could range up to $1 billion, planners have said.

In Portland, Goose Hollow's proximity to the light rail line -- which Becklund said is now home to some of Portland's premier public art displays -- has been a selling point for that neighborhood, where sticker prices regularly climb into the seven figures.

But many of the homeowners with whom Becklund said she forged relationships as the extension was under construction have since sold, a change she credits to that city's "very hot housing market."

RTC officials estimate that the first phase, which would link Henderson to downtown Las Vegas, could be complete by 2008. The second phase, which would run to North Las Vegas, could be finished by 2014.

In an e-mail sent to RTC General Manager Jacob Snow earlier this month, Meoz asked that the committee vote to abandon any plans for a light rail along the existing Union Pacific line that runs through Henderson.

"To date, there has only been a presentation of the route path to the committee, showing where it goes, from point A to point B to point C," Meoz wrote in a follow-up e-mail. "There has been no thorough, objective discussion of the pros and cons of any part of this route during the proceedings of the steering committee."

Board member M.J. Harvey has traveled with a group created within the committee to tour the electric system in Portland and a gas-powered version in Camden, N.J.

Harvey has urged the committee to consider a shorter line that would not at first go to Henderson but would allow the RTC to add new lines as growth in Southern Nevada dictates. She suggested in June that the line start at the South Strip Transfer Terminal at Gilespie Street and Sunset Road and continue north along Frank Sinatra Drive before ending at what could be its ultimate terminus in North Las Vegas.

"The reason that the RTC is talking about the (Henderson) corridor is because it's there," she said Thursday. "... There's a lot to think about and that's my judgment at this time."

Opponents, meanwhile, have started their own site, www.srfgh.com, to plant the seeds for what Dix said she hopes will be a grass-roots effort to derail the system.

"This is about education," Dix, a retired educator, said. "We support mass transit. We don't support wasting dollars.""

Ingrid Reisman

RTC SPOKESWOMAN

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