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Benjamin Spillman

Report: Traffic woes will mount as LV tourist count grows

27 June 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- When a bus zipped past a stop recently on Las Vegas Boulevard near the Riviera because it was too full to load more tourists, Andy Colbert didn't wait for another one.

Colbert decided it would be quicker to run the 2 1/2 miles to Planet Hollywood.

"Even at an easy jog, I beat the bus back to Planet Hollywood," said Colbert, 49, of Oregon, Ill.

By 2015, when more than 49 million people are expected to visit Las Vegas annually, an increase of 25 percent from 2006, Colbert might have time to stop for blackjack and cocktails and still move faster than traffic on the Strip.

That kind of gridlock would be bad news for investors betting on more than $25 billion worth of new resort developments. With more than 170,000 hotel rooms to fill by 2012, the last thing Las Vegas needs is a reputation for congestion and delay that could prompt potential visitors to go elsewhere.

But that's exactly where Sin City is headed if the community doesn't take drastic steps to upgrade transportation infrastructure, according to a recent report from Deutsche Bank.

"The very basic point is if that doesn't happen there will be a spectacular disaster financially," said analyst Bill Lerner, who contributed to the report.

Critics of the report, however, said it was overly simplistic and overlooked solutions already in the works, including a proposed train-like bus system that would use dedicated lanes to move as many as 100,000 people daily along the Strip.

"It just took every possible thing that could go wrong and highlighted it," said Alan Feldman, spokesman for MGM Mirage, which has 10 resorts on the Strip, including MGM Grand, Bellagio and Luxor.

The company has contributed land worth more than $500 million to transportation projects in recent years. Its CityCenter resort project, under construction at a cost of $7.4 billion, includes a $30 million cash contribution to Clark County for transportation and emergency services, Feldman said.

CityCenter is just one of several multibillion-dollar projects under way that will generate traffic on the Strip and Interstate 15 to California.

Lerner suggested reviving proposals for a high-speed train connection with Southern California, light rail to move people along the Strip and tolls on Interstate 15 as ways to "perhaps avert disaster."

According to the report, traffic from visitors is expected to increase more than 7 percent by 2015 as the number of people visiting Las Vegas reaches more than 49 million annually.

While the percentage increase doesn't seem dramatic, Lerner said, the current streets and highways that serve the Strip already are at or near capacity. Any increase from current levels threatens to overtax the infrastructure, he said.

"In this case you need a solution pretty desperately," Lerner said. "Nobody is taking this stuff seriously."

That's where people disagree with Lerner. Transportation officials highlighted several improvements under way that should alleviate congestion. Whether the solutions will keep pace with resort development, or even come to pass, remains to be seen though.

An early version of rapid transit buses, called the Ace system, is scheduled to start operating downtown and on Boulder Highway in 2009. The bus system costs about $15 million per mile to create, compared to as much as $80 million per mile for light rail, said Jacob Snow, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission.

With the Strip capable of supporting about 70,000 vehicles daily today, the appeal of a bus system that could move 100,000 people is obvious. Snow said the Ace would be faster than the Deuce because it would have fewer stops, level ground loading and prepaid fares such as a train.

"You just pick a door and get on and away you go," Snow said.

The Deuce has more than two dozen stops in each direction, requires on-board fare payment and riders have to climb steps to board.

"Every other person who gets on the Deuce does not have correct change, does not know where they are going," said Colbert, the tourist who outran the bus during his last visit to Las Vegas. "It just slows transportation down."

The Ace system, however, has not yet raised funding for dedicated lanes on the Strip. That means the buses would be subject to the same traffic woes as every other vehicle. Snow said getting the lanes would require help from the federal government and major casinos.

"We would need to work with all the property owners on the strip," Snow said.

Operators of the Las Vegas Monorail say they have plans to expand their system to McCarran International Airport by 2011. The privately run monorail, which runs 3.9 miles along Paradise Road and behind resorts on the east side of the Strip from the Sahara to the MGM Grand, carries about 20,000 people daily.

The ridership is low compared to projections it would move as many as 50,000 people daily. Low ridership has been blamed on everything from the monorail's low visibility behind the major resorts to high ticket prices of $5 per ride or $40 for a three-day pass.

Ingrid Reisman, vice president of corporate communications for the Las Vegas Monorail, said a connection to McCarran would make the system more useful. The company is seeking funding in the form of tax exempt bonds to extend the system 4.2 miles to the airport and hopes to announce financing by early 2008, she said.

The appeal of the monorail is that passengers don't have to cross lanes of traffic to get from the system to their hotel rooms.

Bus passengers disembarking in the middle of the Strip could face long walks to check in, she said.

"Where they first receive their customers is often several hundred feet in from Las Vegas Boulevard," Reisman said of the Strip resorts.

Transportation consultant Tom Skancke said Southern Nevada's congestion problems go beyond the Strip. Skancke, one of 12 people on a national transportation study committee, said recent efforts by the legislature and Gov. Jim Gibbons to raise $1 billion in funding stop well short of what's needed.

In the long term, Skancke said, optional toll roads and passenger trains are among viable solutions to gridlock.

But funding and perception are hurdles that make it impossible for Nevadans to create those solutions without help, especially when it comes to trains.

"It is not Nevada's fault there isn't sufficient high-speed rail between Southern Nevada and Southern California," Skancke said. "People in the West want their own horse and buggy. It is how they were raised."