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October 24, 2014

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Light rail option is derailed

It takes only a few rush-hour trips along the Las Vegas Valley's clogged interstates and major surface streets - or about 10 minutes anytime on the Strip - to conclude there must be a better, quicker way of getting from almost any here to practically every there.

In a town where so much comes down to the odds, don't bet on it being light rail.

Although cities from Portland, Ore., to Denver to Minneapolis to Baltimore have embraced light rail as the centerpiece of their regional transportation systems, local planners have derailed that option in favor of a "rapid bus" plan.

The buses undeniably would be cheaper and more flexible than light rail. But the smaller price tag and the ability to change routes comes with a significant public policy trade-off. In addition, study after study has shown that light rail attracts many more riders than rapid bus lines.

At the heart of this debate is a mass transit version of the chicken-or-egg question: Which comes first - growth or a transportation system?

As long as a century ago, older Midwestern and Eastern cities - and more recently, municipalities throughout the country - demonstrated how public transportation choices can shape a community's future by focusing growth along dense transit corridors.

For the Las Vegas region, that poses several intriguing questions and possibilities.

Could Las Vegas, with its shortage of land and recent impulse for vertical living, rein in growth by laying out light rail lines where its population is concentrated now - and, more important , where it would like to see future growth?

Or will the region's major public transit system follow growth via buses that can be targeted at future developments ? And if the bus lines are established, would they attract riders or end up another multimillion-dollar project that almost no one uses, such as the monorail?

Last April the Regional Transportation Commission rejected a proposed 33-mile light rail system, recommended by a steering committee, that would have linked Henderson to downtown Las Vegas and North Las Vegas.

The proposal not only drew strong opposition from Henderson residents who did not want trains in their back yards, but also raised red flags with taxpayers and transit planners worried about the costs. It also didn't help that the route would have traversed only the eastern half of the Las Vegas Valley .

Not that bus-rapid-transit proponents have to worry. Light rail is no longer a consideration here. Last spring eight elected officials of the commission voted to conduct an environmental study of the corridor - but only with rapid transit buses, not light rail.

The future of light rail in Las Vegas was further dimmed in July, when the commission approved a long-range transportation plan to run through 2030. Again, there was no mention of light rail.

Instead, planners wish to add more so-called "rubber-tired rapid transit" bus routes such as the one known as MAX, the nine-mile Metropolitan Area Express line that runs along Las Vegas Boulevard from the Downtown Transportation Center to Nellis Air Force Base.

That route includes seven miles where the sleek-looking bus, which resembles a monorail car, uses its own dedicated lane and makes fewer stops than a regular CAT bus. That enables MAX to go from downtown to Nellis in 30 minutes, half the time as CAT.

"I don't think light rail is likely in the foreseeable future here because it was determined that the rubber-tired bus is much more cost-effective and much more flexible in terms of routes," said Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, chairman of the transportation commission board.

"Light rail is more expensive, and once you determine a route, you're stuck with it even if ridership doesn't work out."

Light rail proponents tout such systems' higher ridership and environmentally friendly aspects . And they argue that light rail stations attract commercial development and raise surrounding property values.

San Diego's Metropolitan Transit System riders don't need to be convinced. The 53-mile-long, electric-powered trolley routes carried 34.3 million passengers last year, including more than 102,000 per weekday.

"It's more like a hub because it makes connections to all parts of the region," system spokesman Luis Gonzalez said. "The trolley provides a good starting point or ending point to a lot of places in San Diego."

Jane Feldman, conservation co-chairwoman of the Sierra Club's local chapter, is among those who support both light rail and rapid transit buses.

"We cannot build enough streets to put one person in a car to go where they want to go," Feldman said. "We like public transportation because it provides a lot of mobility for a lot of people in a small space and gives us clean air at the same time."

But skeptics question many of light rail's purported attributes. The libertarian Reason Foundation of Los Angeles, seeking to debunk the ridership claims made by light rail advocates, stated in a 2005 report that over the past two decades, transit ridership declined in 13 of 23 U.S. metropolitan areas with rail transit. The study cited Las Vegas as among bus-only cities "in which transit is growing faster than auto driving."

The transportation commission reported that the MAX bus rapid transit (BRT) line currently in place averages 67 passengers per hour, 63 percent more than normal CAT buses' average of 41 passengers per hour. Both of those figures surpass the national bus ridership average of 27 passengers per hour.

More and more, said Daniel Hess, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Buffalo, cities are turning away from light rail and toward bus rapid transit.

"I wouldn't say I'm convinced that BRT is the way to go," Hess said. "I'd say that the costs of the new BRT systems are 2 percent to 39 percent of the cost of a comparable light rail, which leaves a whole lot of money that can be used for more public uses."

He added that one way to defeat the poor public perception of "taking the bus" is through sleek and effective marketing campaigns. Can you say, "What happens in Vegas ..."?

"These are high-tech vehicles that begin to look like rail," he said. "Sometimes, there's even a platform built so people don't have to climb three steps to get into them."

Because of large federal grants in the 1970s and '80s, light rail began to supplant bus systems in many parts of the country, Hess added. But those subsidies are all but gone , and even cities with established rail systems are moving toward BTR .

"Los Angeles began building rail in the 1980s, but since 2000, they have an express policy of no more rail projects," he said.

But do buses hold promise, or are we looking at another victim of the monorail syndrome - Build it and no one will come?

"We don't really know," Hess said. "It's ironic that we moved through various modes of transit and now we're back to buses." Indeed, as Las Vegas looks toward its 21st century traffic needs, it, like other cities, trns to a system that is more Ralph Kramden than George Jetson.

A major obstacle to a light rail system in Las Vegas is that with the exception of the Strip corridor, the valley's commercial and residential areas are far more spread out than in denser, older cities with long-standing rail transit systems.

"If land use was conducted with light rail in mind, it could work in Las Vegas," UNLV transportation engineering professor Edward Neumann said. "No technology is ever absolutely dead. These transportation technologies are like phoenixes. They arise out of the ashes."

But he added that Las Vegas is among those cities where "transportation planning has always been a catch-up game. They're 10 years behind the developers."

Neumann said motorists could eschew light rail because the valley "has a lot of parking and it's free," a contrast with some rail-friendly cities where parking space is at a premium.

Given a choice between light rail and rapid transit buses, Neumann agrees with Woodbury and others, such as transportation commission general manager Jacob Snow and Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Cara Roberts, who laud buses' route flexibility.

"It's got to go where people are and take them where they want to go," Roberts said of mass transit.

On the issue of cost, rapid transit buses are the big winners over light rail, Snow said.

The proposed 33-mile route from Henderson to North Las Vegas would cost $700 million if rapid transit buses are used, compared with the estimated $1.15 billion price tag for a light rail system.

"If you save people time and make it reliable, it doesn't matter what the transportation is," Snow said. "It's how you deploy the system, whether it's a train or a bus."

Of more than 1,400 locations the Nevada Transportation Department used in 2005 to monitor traffic, 53 along surface streets registered daily loads of at least 50,000 vehicles.

"In certain corridors, we cannot widen streets," Snow said. "But there are certain corridors where we can say that we have the right of way to dedicate a lane for a transit vehicle. We can't make cars go away, so we have to look at providing as much capacity to our transportation system as we can."

In addition to achieving that goal, buses offer environmental advantages. MAX buses burn low-sulfur diesel fuel, keeping emissions to a minimum. While light rail advocates argue that electric-powered rail cars are even cleaner, a transportation commission steering committee that studied rail options for the proposed Henderson-to-North Las Vegas corridor rejected that option because of the unsightliness of overhead wires.

Even if the proposed 33-mile corridor, currently under environmental study, is ultimately approved, it would be at least a few years before any part of the route is used by MAX.

Snow said MAX is expected to debut on a route from the Downtown Transportation Center, down Boulder Highway to Henderson in 2009, at an estimated cost of $90 million, involving $78 million in local sales taxes and $12 million in federal transit funds. A portion of the Boulder Highway route will involve dedicated center lanes.

Ridership along Boulder Highway is projected to at least match the existing MAX route, which carried 2.35 million riders last year, about 6,500 per day.

Another route being considered is from McCarran International Airport to the Strip to downtown Las Vegas, with an estimated price tag of $60 million - $35 million in sales taxes and $25 million in federal funds. Best-case scenarios have that opening in two to three years.

Rapid transit buses, though, are not a panacea for the ever-growing traffic jams that will only get worse as long as the valley continues to add 100 cars a day. And there are other considerations.

"Clearly buses are underused in the Las Vegas Valley," said Michael Geeser, spokesman for AAA Nevada. "A lot of it has to do with the weather. It's tough to stand at a bus stop and wait for a ride, especially in the summer. And it can take a fairly long bus ride to get you where you're going given how the valley is spread out."

If light rail seems down for the moment, it is far from out.

In fact, many cities plan to replace bus rapid transit routes with light rail lines once they become so popular that demand eclipses the buses' capacity, Hess said.

"The new feeling is, let's put in a bus system and make a lot of attractive features and hopefully that will influence land use, create clusters of activity nearby, and when the buses are no longer suitable, upgrade to light rail," Hess said.

That hasn't happened yet, because bus rapid transits are still less than a decade old. But if that becomes an issue in Las Vegas, what happens here may have started somewhere else.

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