Sunday, May 8, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Brookings Mountain West applauds the Clark County Commission for authorizing the extension of the Las Vegas Monorail south from its current southern terminus behind the MGM Grand Hotel to Mandalay Bay Convention Center. The short addition, plus building a new station at the Sands Expo, will make the monorail Las Vegas’s “Convention Center” line. The improved line will link Southern Nevada’s three biggest convention spaces — the Las Vegas Convention Center, Sands Expo and Convention Center, and Mandalay Bay Convention Center.
Las Vegas maintains the nation’s largest convention trade, with 5.2 million attendees and more than 9 million square feet of major public and private convention space. The monorail, which will be extended from a length of 3.9 miles to 4.5 miles, will provide pedestrian access to most of the region’s convention space via nine stations.
But the biggest monorail improvement Las Vegas could undertake is linking it to an integrated 5.5-mile light-rail line. Combining an existing Convention Center line with a new “Strip-Airport” light-rail train would connect every major resort corridor tourist asset to rail.
Las Vegas is fortunate. Most of its key tourist assets lie in a compact space. Strip resorts, convention centers and McCarran International Airport fit in an urban area of only a few square miles. The Las Vegas resort corridor contains one of the most concentrated commercial clusters in the U.S., its retail, entertainment, restaurant, nightclub, convention and hotel trade surpassing that of any major downtown in the nation — including Midtown Manhattan and Chicago’s Loop.
Building website Emporis.com ranks the Strip’s skyline (based on the number of structures exceeding 100 meters) ahead of such major downtowns as San Francisco’s, Dallas’s and Seattle’s. By any definition, Las Vegas’s resort corridor is intensely urban and would benefit by enhanced pedestrian access via rail.
Two short rail lines bring all resort corridor assets within pedestrian reach. Here is how a two-line, 10-mile integrated monorail/light-rail system would work.
The Convention Center monorail line would run elevated from Mandalay Bay Resort on the south end of the Strip north to SLS Las Vegas on Paradise Road near Sahara Avenue. The line would stop at nine resorts and three major convention centers and run mostly along the east side of Las Vegas Boulevard, then jog farther east to run north along Paradise Road.
The Strip-Airport light-rail line would run at street grade from McCarran north along Paradise Road, turn west on Tropicana Avenue, and proceed north up Las Vegas Boulevard to end inside Las Vegas city limits just past Sahara Avenue. The line would have at least 10 stations strategically placed to maximize resort access, and include a possible stop next to the proposed stadium on the UNLV site at Tropicana Avenue and Koval Lane. In fact, the first station north of the airport would be at the stadium.
The Strip-Airport line also would link to the new T-Mobile Arena via a stop near Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. That station additionally would provide access to the people mover in front of Excalibur that runs south to Mandalay Bay.
The Las Vegas monorail/light-rail system would include a fully integrated station behind the MGM Grand where the elevated Convention Center line would cross over the Strip-Airport line, with an escalator and short enclosed walkway tying the two lines together. The Convention Center and Strip-Airport lines would nearly meet at their north ends as well, where station connections are walkable. For a mile-long stretch along Las Vegas Boulevard, the two lines are also walkable at the current monorail stations: Bally’s/Paris, Flamingo/Caesars Palace, and Harrah’s/the Linq. Also, three people movers west of the Strip lie near the light-rail line.
Using the system to reach all major destinations by rail would be easy. Attendees at the three major convention centers could head to the airport by hopping on the Convention Center Line and transferring to the Strip-Airport line at the integrated MGM Grand station. Likewise, guests at resorts could transfer at MGM to reach convention centers. Again, Las Vegas is so compact that a single transfer station could handle most connections between the two lines with ease.
The monorail, having been derided as a train from nowhere to nowhere, could become an essential part of a system that seamlessly delivers passengers among the airport, resorts, arenas, convention centers and perhaps a stadium. Las Vegas can leapfrog over competitors such as Orlando, where a sprawling resort, convention and entertainment zone requires billions of dollars to link completely by rail. By contrast, Las Vegas’s compact urban quality requires a relatively modest $400 million investment in light rail and a short monorail extension to literally ring the resort corridor with up to 20 stations, all with airport access.
The typical incentives to use rail are manifest and include convenience and avoiding congestion. Add to that the parking fees that MGM (the Strip’s largest property owner) will soon be charging and the demand for rail will only grow.
Finally, all this sounds great, but how do we pay for it? Actually, tourists already have paid and will continue to pay for local transportation improvements via the room tax. Clark County’s room tax share for resort corridor transportation projects comes to 1 percent and equals $56 million per year. We could simply direct a modest fraction of the revenue to pay the bonds on a Strip-Airport light-rail line.
There also are other ways to pay for light rail. We could sell naming rights to the lines, as they do in Denver. And the Regional Transportation Commission projects a revenue surplus on the Strip-Airport line that could secure building bonds.
We are a compact, high-rise, high-density city with a massive hospitality industry that draws more than 42 million annual visitors who actually spend more per year on tourism (about $50 billion) than the 66 million visitors in Orlando. The combination of small scale, high demand, branding opportunities and sufficient in-place tourist taxes makes building a short light-rail line through the most lucrative tourist corridor in the U.S. a highly practical, cost-effective transportation improvement. Let’s do it.
Robert Lang is the executive director of Brookings Mountain West and a professor of public affairs in UNLV’s Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. William Brown is the UNLV director of Brookings Mountain West.