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Rod Smith

Is Rail the Solution for Gridlock?

5 September 2006

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA AND LAS VEGAS, NEVADA -- A heavy rail line bringing tourists in from Southern California and elsewhere will have to be a part of the solution to growing traffic problems along the Strip resort corridor, Regional Transportation Commission General Manager Jacob Snow and other local experts agree.

Snow believes that rail links, including renewed local Amtrak service and a new magnetically levitated passenger line connecting Las Vegas and Southern California, will help relieve congestion in the resort corridor, which is generally bordered by Interstate 15, Paradise Road and Tropicana and Sahara avenues.

"I think we're going to need them both, Amtrak and maglev. (Interstate) 15 simply has limited capacity," Snow said, explaining that rail links can help reduce drive-in tourist traffic on Interstate 15, which is already clogged nearly to capacity.

With 25,000 hotel and hotel-condo units likely to be added to the Strip in the next four years, and possibly 80,000 condominium units coming out of the ground along the resort corridor, the number of cars in the area could increase by 50 percent over today's 225,000 daily trips.

That means rail service alone won't resolve the traffic problems.

"With all the additional visitors, it's very important to make sure we have all the modes of transportation (we can) to accommodate them so the Strip can continue as a world-class street," said Greg Borgel, owner of consulting firm Moreno and Associates. "You can't build your way out of congestion just by providing new lanes. (A lot of) alternative modes have to be the answer," he said.

A new regional transportation terminal in downtown Las Vegas is also needed to satisfy visitor, commuter and vendor needs for transit around the resort corridor, Snow said.

Snow said plans are in the works for such an "intermodal transfer terminal" on the old station site adjacent to the Plaza, which is appropriately zoned.

The terminal, when built, should accommodate the Las Vegas Monorail, the Deuce bus system, 18 traditional bus routes and "park and ride" parking for commuters, he said.

Snow said new train service is important because it would free Interstate 15 lanes for commuters and vendors now competing with drive-in visitor traffic.

Moreover, if renewed Amtrak service included intermediate stops at Tropicana Avenue or Flamingo Road and around Southern Highlands it could help build rider interest, Snow said.

Some tourists are already interested.

Margaret Myles, who flew to Southern Nevada from Portland, Ore., said during a recent visit here that she would gladly "ride the rails" to Las Vegas if she could.

"In Portland, you walk to the MAX (Metropolitan Area Express train) and step on and that's it," she said. "If I could take the train here without the hassles, the cabs or the security, I would. It'd make getting here as simple as (getting to) Seattle."

Dave Duran, a visitor from Los Angeles who was waiting for a cab at McCarran International Airport recently, echoed Myles' feelings.

"As long as it didn't take much longer, we'd do it," he said. "Who wants to go to LAX or Burbank and deal with parking, or wait in this line here with the heat? A train and monorail hookup, where I (and my friends) could chug a few and play (some poker) would beat this by a mile."

Snow argues that getting visitors such as these off Interstate 15 or out of taxis would help relieve traffic along the Strip.

"Those are the kinds of systems we need to deal with the congestion," he said. "We have to build capacity in the system."

Snow and transportation experts also argue that the problems facing the resort corridor area are so severe and complex that only a widespread, multimodal approach that includes heavy rail will resolve them.

Las Vegas Monorail President Curtis Myles said the monorail will play a limited, but critical, role in solving local traffic problems.

"You can't solve all the problems with one approach," he said. "But the monorail can make big inroads in handing one or two elements of the problem."

Myles said the monorail will prove particularly useful in getting visitors to their destinations and moving them around the resort corridor from one hotel to another.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas Professor Bill Thompson, who specializes in gaming studies, said all Lss Vegas really needs for train service is some good tracks and direct service.

"Since 1970, Las Vegas and the gaming industry have been sustained by growth," he said.

"If we're going to be busting loose and be a city of 3 million, then it's very important we have sophisticated transit system, including rail, just like they do in other (world class cities)."

Amtrak officials could not be reached for comment. Aides to Sen. Harry Reid, D.-Nev., who has been an advocate of the maglev train idea, failed to return calls.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea of traveling to and from Las Vegas by train.

"I take the train to New York," said Chris Stein, a tourist from Chicago. "But the problem is what do you do when you get here. I'd just as soon stick with a plane and a taxi and get myself to the front door."

Because of sentiments like Stein's, transit experts said the traffic solution will have to involve several systems, not just trains.

Snow said other elements in a multimodal approach should include a regional fixed guide way down the median of the Strip, The Deuce bus system, the Nevada Department of Transportation's I-15 expansion program, improved and expanded pedestrian walkways, and an array of "smart systems."

These novel, but marginal, enhancements include dynamic highway signs, closed-circuit television monitors, advanced traffic-signal monitors and radio detectors to spot volume issues with traffic flows, Snow said.