Las Vegas Eyes Light-Rail As it Seeks Airport Connection

The Sun Belt is in the midst of a light-rail bonanza. Las Vegas might join the party. But will casinos be on board?

Las Vegas train

The Sun Belt is in the midst of a light-rail bonanza. Las Vegas might join the party. But will casinos be on board?

Las Vegas hosts tens of thousands of conventions per year, brings in billions of dollars in gaming revenue and attracts millions of visitors. But when people fly into the McCarran International Airport, many have to choose between waiting on a taxi or taking the bus to get to the casinos along the Strip -- even though the Strip borders the airport itself.

Now, as cities like Phoenix and Denver are embracing and expanding light-rail options, a growing cadre of voices are calling on Las Vegas -- one of the few Sun Belt cities that hasn't launched a light-rail expansion -- to do so.

Last year, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada released a 30-year plan that includes recommendations for a light-rail connection between the airport and the Strip. And proponents argue a new line could connect to the existing Monorail train that links several big name properties along the corridor.

In its Transportation Investment Business Plan, the commission outlines two potential scenarios: one in which a business executive leaves a conference, follows some signage and hops onto a light-rail train for a quick ride to the airport. It's "the smoothest, least stressful part of her conference, she thinks to herself," the commission writes in the plan. And the other scenario: "The same executive waits in a seemingly endless cab line outside the convention center." That's what some visitors encounter today, and it's a situation that will only get worse as the region grows, according to the report.

“We only need 5.5 miles of it because it’s a really close-in airport,” explained Robert Lang, executive director at Brookings Mountain West and a professor at the University of Nevada - Las Vegas. “The airport runway practically lands in the Strip.”

“It’s a very urban space,” he said of the Strip, home to well-known casinos such as the Venetian, Caesars Palace and MGM Grand. “There’s no other city that has these assets that does not have them linked by rail. You look at the intensity of land use, the number of (potential) riders -- 42 million annual visitors -- it’s stunning that it doesn’t exist.”

But the commission's recommendations leave a lot of the details up in the air. The rail could run underground, at street level or on elevated structures. It could take several different routes around the airport. And funding still needs to be figured out. Cost estimates range from around $600 million to $5.7 billion and could be covered through a variety of local tax and revenue sources as well as federal funds and grants.

It’s not the first time light-rail has been proposed here. “Traffic has been a topic as long as I can remember,” said Bruce Woodbury, former chair of the Nevada Regional Transportation Commission and the Clark County Commission, which he served on throughout the 1980s and 1990s before leaving office in 2009, thanks to term limits. In those roles, he helped establish transportation funding streams, created the area's first public bus system, and planned the 215 Beltway and several arterial roads. When he was in office, there was discussion of both light-rail and a express bus system with dedicated lanes, but neither panned out.

“Frankly, with light-rail, it was the question of funding and competition with other projects,” Woodbury said. But the challenge with light rail and an express bus alike was “all of that was opposed by the resort property owners, by and large, and that’s still going to be a major obstacle for light rail.” He said property owners struggled both with how riders would access their properties and where potential stops might be.

Today, the Las Vegas Monorail, which was originally conceived as a partnership between MGM Grand and Bally's Hotel, runs along the east side of the properties, off the Strip, with seven stations connecting some of the major casinos and attractions. An expansion is in the works to add more destinations. But it doesn’t go the airport.

Woodbury, who sits on the board of the non-profit monorail company, said the monorail never got an airport stop -- though there's talk of it in the future -- in large part due to insufficient funding and lack of consensus about routes and stop locations.

There’s more to it than that, according to Lang, who said a muscular taxicab industry also helped kill previous light-rail proposals. But with the rise of ride-sharing services and a younger generation interested in light rail, Lang said, things have changed a great deal.

“I know a lot of 20-somethings without a license,” said Lang, including some of his own students. With another $200 million county project in the works to create elevated expressways connecting to the airport, Lang said, Las Vegas could fall behind other destinations if it fails to embrace improved mass transit.

Across the U.S. Sun Belt, cities -- mindful of the demands of today's generation -- are adopting light rail. Denver just opened a 23-mile commuter rail connection from its airport to downtown. Phoenix is expanding its light-rail system. But Lang is most concerned about Orlando, which has an extensive commuter rail system and is pursuing a light-rail line between Orlando International Airport and International Drive.

“Orlando is laughing at us,” he said. “And I know that because I talk to them.” With a huge tourist economy – 66 million visitors last year -- Orlando competes with Las Vegas for convention business. “Right now the premier space for that is Las Vegas, but it doesn’t have to be," he said.

The 30-year plan presented by the regional commission calls on light rail to eventually pass through downtown Las Vegas as well, at a much larger cost, and includes a whole host of recommendations for improvements like pedestrian bridges along the Strip, Monorail expansions and express regional bus service, plus a downtown circulator trolley. Extending the proposed light-rail line beyond the resort corridor could present an opportunity for federal funding, according to Lang. “It would go through a distressed neighborhood,” he explained, “and it would create an opportunity for urban redevelopment for that part of the city.” If light rail could reach downtown and into north Las Vegas, said Lang, “that would be a major commuter opening.”

What’s more, he said, there's evidence to believe Las Vegas residents support the project. When the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Commission conducted its comprehensive survey of residents' visions for the future, dubbed Southern Nevada Strong, it found broad support for light rail. The outreach campaign, conducted between 2012 and 2014, reached more than 70,000 people through task forces, focus groups, mailers, phone calls and online surveys. Results showed strong support for light rail in the area.

But light rail is far from a done deal in Las Vegas, and there are still several steps before rail can run to the airport. For one, analysis needs to be done to figure out which of three proposed connections around the airport works best. And there's the challenge of funding, which has yet to be identified. Lang said he thinks money from the hotel room tax could help pay for the light rail's first phase. In April, the transportation commission authorized its manager to begin a deeper analysis with community input, expected to begin in July, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

Still, Lang fears the project will get stuck. “The most likely thing is we don’t build light-rail or an elevated expressway (and) just debate it further, he said.” And Lang agreed with Woodbury that consensus among the big Strip players will be key.

MGM Grand said it's "monitoring the discussions" but does not take a position on the proposal, according to Yvette Monet, corporate communications manager for MGM Resorts International.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which was part of the initial push to rethink Las Vegas' transportation issues, did not respond directly to a request from the Urban Edge asking its position on the light-rail proposal. "Transportation is a critical element for the continued success of Las Vegas as a tourism and convention destination," Jeremey Handel, senior director of communications for the authority, said in an email.

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