A possible light rail system on Maryland Parkway is coming closer to reality as officials prepare to release an environmental assessment of options for the heavily-trafficked corridor.
Three options, including improved bus service, dedicated bus lanes and light rail, are part of the environmental review that officials expect to be made public in late spring or early summer, said David Swallow, senior director of engineering and technology at the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada.
Federal agencies are taking longer than expected to approve the assessment for publication, meaning the presentation to the board will be pushed back to August or September after the assessment can be made public and residents have had a chance to weigh in, Swallow said.
The route that’s been proposed for a high-capacity transit link connects McCarran International Airport with downtown Las Vegas, and would travel west to the premium outlet malls and the Las Vegas medical district, as well as the future UNLV medical school. Maryland Parkway intersects with 26 of 39 routes in RTC system, Swallow said, including the system’s five busiest routes.
Maryland Parkway has historically been the busiest transit route in the network, and today is right behind the Strip in productivity when looking at the number of passengers per hour and passengers per mile, as well as when comparing fare revenue to the cost of operating the system. Swallow said riders in the area are more likely than anywhere else in the Valley not to own a vehicle.
Whichever option the RTC board ultimately chooses, the improvements are expected to be in place before 2025, Swallow said.
Swallow sat down with the Sun to talk about what could be next for Maryland Parkway and the combination of federal and local funds that could support these multimillion-dollar projects. His comments have been edited for clarity.
“When you look at Maryland Parkway, it’s not just about providing service within the corridor itself,” Swallow said. “It’s more stitching together the larger part of the valley with this transit connection.”
What are the options for Maryland Parkway?
With the enhanced bus service we’re looking at maybe reducing the number of stops so they’re a little bit further apart going from a quarter of a mile to a third of a mile. We’ve done that on other corridors and it sounds contrary to take out stops to improve service but it actually makes it a little bit faster, and anywhere we’ve done it we’ve actually seen an increase in ridership.
The second option is what we call bus rapid transit. This is similar to what we’ve done on Sahara and Boulder Highway. Maryland Parkway has six travel lanes. We’re looking at converting two of those to designated transit lanes where the transit’s running on the side like you see on Sahara or Flamingo or Boulder Highway. Our buses would be able to move more efficiently (and) ... we still are keeping that traffic capacity because the lanes are available for cars to use to make right turns. Arguably, when you’re going down Maryland Parkway today, the right lanes are generally either buses or cars that are going to turn right at some point. It’s not a big difference from how it is today. We would look to also maybe add at some of the key intersections additional right turn lanes to help increase the capacity for traffic. It would be a dramatic change from what it is today.
Then we are looking at ... basically a light rail train but different than ... in Phoenix where it has three train cars connected together. This would be single train cars that are operating along the corridor. So, light rail trains, again, repurposing the outer lanes to dedicated transit lanes ... still available for cars to use to make right turns. Technology has been evolving, especially in recent years, to enable systems like they’re proposing in Tempe (Arizona) right now on Mill (Avenue) where they’re going off-wire. … When we put out the environmental document, we will show the overhead wires just because we want to make sure everybody knows this is the greatest potential impact. The technology’s there, and it’s developing and evolving. We certainly want to take advantage of that if we were to go forward with a light rail option.
Any other plans?
With both the bus rapid transit and the light rail options, we’re looking to include bike lanes, but different than what we’ve done on other corridors. We’re looking to actually put them behind the curb at the same level as the sidewalk, so bicyclists and pedestrians would be in the same general area.
We also want to upgrade the shelters, make them nicer for our passengers and also complementary the adjacent properties. We’ve also looked into transit signal priority, which is a way of having our buses communicate with the traffic signal system. … It extends the green time just a handful of seconds to help the bus get through, or to If a bus is waiting to go, maybe start the green cycle a little bit earlier. We have done this on other corridors. We do it to give what we can to the bus system but we’re always maintaining that signal coordination at the same time. It’s a way to improve it but it’s not a dramatic increase. That’s what we’re talking about with the enhanced bus service.
What about the Strip?
The Strip is a completely different environment, and that’s something that we’re looking at with another effort. Frankly, it’s not like you can just take one solution and put it on the Strip and call it good. There’s a lot of investment in Las Vegas Boulevard to create a certain experience and anything we do needs to be complementary and enhance that experience.
The Strip is our highest-performing route and helps carry the rest of the system in terms of the revenue that we collect. We recognize the Strip is a very important corridor. Contrary to other transit routes, not only in our system but generally across the country, the Strip makes money for the RTC’s overall network. Somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 trips per day, depending on the day, on buses.
What are the projected costs for these options?
When you want to do a federally project like this, the federal match is generally limited to about 80 percent of the capital cost. The local funds needed would come from a couple sources, (including) ... the fuel revenue indexing funds.
A tax increment finance district is probably one source. When, say, a light rail system’s put in, the properties adjacent to that system increase in value significantly. Basically, as the values of the properties increase and the tax revenues go up, we would look to take a portion of that to help pay for either the construction of the project and or the ongoing operations and maintenance costs.