Is light rail all that?

By: - March 1, 2019 6:48 am
Maryland light rail

Rendering of a proposed light rail along Maryland Parkway.

Try as officials may to frame the discussion around Maryland Parkway transit improvement as being about three viable options, it has always seemed like light rail’s fight to lose.

The extended focus on light rail is not surprising. Introducing an entirely new type of public transit to the state sounds more impressive than improving infrastructure to make existing buses more efficient, which is what the other two options on the table do. Light rail is the type of pie-in-the-sky project that whets the appetites of politicians who want the ability to say they helped usher in the future and residents who wish this city was more like Phoenix or Denver or Portland.

Maryland Pwky Project
The proposed route for the Maryland Parkway Project.

The transit improvement project would affect Maryland Parkway between Russell Road near the airport into downtown, then westward into the medical district near University Medical Center.

Supporters of a proposed light rail option believe it would be transformative, not just for the corridor but to the whole of Southern Nevada. It could spur economic development, establish a sense of place, and kickstart an appreciation for public transit among in notoriously car-centric city. One supporter last year opined that light rail would be as much of a game changer for Southern Nevada as the fancy football stadium.

Opponents of the proposed light rail along Maryland Parkway scoff at the price tag attached to the project: $750 million in capital costs, about half of which would likely come from state and local dollars. (Competitive federal grants would be pursued for the other half.) One fear is it could lead to local tax increases in the future.

There are also those who see light rail and dedicated bus lanes alike as a solution to a public transit problem that doesn’t exist, despite the ridership and trip data presented by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC). For this subset of people, vehicular traffic should be prioritized and anything that could potentially compromise that is concerning.

RTC General Manager Tina Quigley told KNPR last week that the public preference between bus rapid transit and light rail have been about equal. You would likely not know it based off the voices that have dominated recent public comment sessions and media coverage on the issue.

Largely missing have been the voices of proponents of the bus rapid transit option, which would create dedicated bus lanes. With a price tag of $336 million, it is less than half the cost of light rail but still achieves many of the same goals, such as reducing travel time.

Buses on Maryland Parkway currently arrive every 15 minutes on average. RTC engineers estimate that time could be reduced to 12 minutes with bus rapid transit. They do not have a projection for how frequently light rail cars would arrive, though a spokesperson told the Current it could possibly be slightly longer than existing times.

Maryland Pwky
A rendering of proposed light rail project along Maryland Parkway.

In a presentation on the proposed options, RTC engineer David Swallow noted that across the country light rail projects garner more excitement and bring in more new riders than buses.

“It’s purely perception,” he says, “but that is a real perception.”

The RTC board will have to decide how much that panache matters and whether embracing it could come with any adverse consequences for the established residents these transit improvements are supposed to be helping. The RTC has steadfastly maintained that while the transit project would connect McCarran International Airport to downtown Las Vegas, its main goal is to benefit the residents and workers along the corridor. A significant number of those people are transit dependent and have no access to a car.

In some other cities, advocates have found themselves fighting gentrification in neighborhoods along new light rail systems.

Academic research has suggested there is no universal relationship between light rail and gentrification, concluding only that neighborhood outcomes depend largely on how specific local and regional bodies embrace transit-oriented development. Rent control and inclusionary zoning policies can help keep established residents from being pushed out of areas deemed “up and coming” because of their proximity to light rail. Neither of those policies have a history of being embraced (or even seriously flirted with) in Southern Nevada.

Monika Bertaki, a spokesperson for RTC, says the outreach has been “extensive” and gone far beyond the public comment sessions where self-selection is an issue. Outreach has included flyering and mailers to all residents and businesses along or near the parkway, as well as advertisements inside the buses, at stops and on the bus wifi.

She says a wider array of sentiments on the project will be seen come April 11, when the RTC board will be presented with a recap of public comment and make a decision on which option they prefer. The board’s approval won’t be the ultimate green light to begin the project, but it is a crucial next step of the process.

The public comment period on the proposed projects ends March 7. Comments are still being accepted online.

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, three children and one mutt.