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Rod Smith

Monorail Set to Grow

29 August 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Major expansion plans are in the works for the Las Vegas Monorail to help relieve traffic congestion along the resort corridor, including a hookup with the airport down Swenson Street and new stations that will link all four of the Strip's major convention centers for the first time.

The company's plans, which are still being worked on, include adding at least five new stations as well as a series of connections that would link the Las Vegas Monorail to properties on the west side of the Strip, Las Vegas Monorail Co. President Curtis Myles said.

With the new stations, the monorail will link more than 6 million square feet of exhibit and meeting space, including for the first time the Sands Expo and Convention Center, the Mandalay Bay Convention Center and the convention facilities planned at Boyd Gaming's Echelon Place, enhancing Las Vegas' role as the convention capital of the country, he said.

The Las Vegas Convention Center already has a monorail station, Myles said.

"Our future is going to be getting the airport connector and connecting the system to more resorts," Myles said.

However, even with the expansion plans, expected to be announced in the next six months, the Las Vegas Monorail stands to play a limited, although essential, role in addressing the transportation problems already afflicting the area's economic drive shaft, he said.

Myles believes any relief to traffic problems along the Strip will be limited, partially because at least 25,000 added hotel rooms are likely to be built in the next four years, generating another 53,000 trips a day through the resort corridor, a 25 percent increase over the 225,000 cars that travel along the resort corridor now every day.

Add the 75,000 to 80,000 condominium units that are also likely to be built in the area, and traffic could actually double from its current level.

The current monorail plan is to run a connector line down Swenson Street to McCarran International with spurs to Terminal 1, the main terminal today, and Terminal 3, which will be built north of the D gates, Myles said.

Airport spokeswoman Elaine Sanchez said plans for Terminal 3 are near completion and the new building should open in mid-2011.

Earlier plans had envisioned a link-up between the MGM Grand terminus and the A gates, but Federal Aviation Administration regulations and the cost of underground tunnels made that cost prohibitive, Myles said.

Officials with the $650 million monorail, which opened in 2004, have been working with the airport and the FAA on a study of the plan that they will each have to approve, he said.

The connector will run along Harmon Avenue, down Paradise Road, across Tropicana Avenue and down Swenson. It is planned to include stops at the new W Las Vegas hotel and the Hard Rock Hotel and the Thomas and Mack Center, Myles said.

Despite its opposition to a station when the monorail was first planned, the Sands Expo and Convention Center also is negotiating for a new station entrance from the current Harrah's Las Vegas station.

Monorail passengers would not make a second stop at the convention center, but would exit the monorail system and enter the Sands Expo and The Venetian through a separate building.

Talks are also in the works for a likely station at Boyd Gaming Corp.'s $4 billion Echelon Place on the Stardust site north of the current Sahara monorail terminus, Myles said.

And there is still a possibility of a station at the Stratosphere although that is a less certain prospect, he said.

In addition to the new stations, Myles said talks are also in the works to integrate the monorail with the three unconnected tram systems at the MGM Mirage properties on the west side of the Strip: one from Mandalay Bay to Excalibur, one from Monte Carlo to Bellagio, which has been closed during construction of the $7 billion Project CityCenter, and a third connecting the Mirage and Treasure Island.

MGM Mirage executives declined to comment, but Myles said they are performing analyses to determine the most cost-effective way to integrate the trams with the monorail system.

MGM Mirage Chairman Terry Lanni last year talked about integrating his trams into a single system that would run from Mandalay Bay through Caesars Palace, which is owned by Harrah's Entertainment, all the way to Treasure Island.

Myles said the monorail is studying alternatives to integrate the present system with the MGM Mirage trams or even to replace the MGM Mirage systems.

Earlier plans for an east-west loop around Fashion Show Mall from the Las Vegas Convention Center have been scrapped because it would not put the most riders where they want to go, Myles said.

Brian Gordon, a principal in Las Vegas-based consultants Applied Analysis, said the added stations are critical for the success of the monorail system.

Now, the monorail runs along a short, 4-mile route from the Sahara to the MGM Grand, with stops at the Las Vegas Hilton, the Las Vegas Convention Center, Harrah's/Imperial Palace, the Flamingo/Caesars Palace, and Bally's/Paris Las Vegas.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas Professor Bill Thompson, who specializes in gaming studies, said the added stations are important to the destination, gaming companies and the community.

Moving tourists and gamblers more conveniently enhances the visitor experience, he said.

"Plus, stopping at Thomas and Mack is fantastic. That'll make Thomas and Mack part of the Strip. It'll be a rare evening when there isn't something going on there and it should cut down on street traffic and parking as well," Thompson said.

In the long run, Myles said any increased ridership could lead to reduced fares, especially if that would mean even more riders.

"If people come here and can't move around, it won't be nearly as successful as it can be and we need to do our part," Myles added.

The Las Vegas Monorail Co. has not determined how its expansion plans would be funded. However, in the past, casino operators kicked in around $20 million per station.

Analysts, who declined to comment until they see how any bond financing is structured, anticipate stronger support from the airport and from MGM Mirage, once arrangements are finalized.

They said with support like that, it should not be too difficult to float a new bond offering.

A state guarantee or continued nonprofit status, each of which could be controversial, also would help, they said.

Greg Borgel, owner of consulting firm Moreno and Associates, said monies generated by casinos on the Strip will simply have to be used for transportation improvements, or visitors will face unacceptable congestion.

The monorail has struggled to gain riders since opening, with ridership far less than the 50,000 daily riders its backers first forecast.

The goal is for the system to carry 15 million to 20 million riders a year by 2016, Myles said, which will amount to about 10 percent of the rapidly increasing visitors moving about the resort corridor.

The company has yet to produce a profit and its bond rating has been reduced to "junk" status, though deep cash reserves have kept the system afloat so far.