Light rail proposal derailed: RTC opts to support rapid bus instead

By: - April 11, 2019 12:00 pm
RTC BRT

RTC courtesy photo.

Turned off by its $1 billion price tag and inflexibility, the Regional Transportation Commission board on Thursday voted unanimously to support a rapid-transit bus system on Maryland Parkway instead of a light rail system.

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

Referred to as “bus rapid transit,” the infrastructure improvement project will add dedicated bus lanes to Maryland Parkway between Russell Road near the airport into downtown, then westward into the medical district near University Medical Center. The improvements are expected to increase ridership and reduce bus arrival times to 12 minutes from its current 15-minute average.

Capital costs for the bus rapid transit project are estimated at $345 million — far cheaper than the alternative proposal considered. The proposed light rail along the corridor was projected at $1 billion in capital costs.

Several RTC board members cited “fiscal responsibility” as their primary reason for supporting the bus rapid transit option over light rail.

“We’ve heard the community likes light rail,” said Henderson Mayor Debra March. “I’ve championed the concept but I’m also a fiscally responsible leader. We have to look at how we are spending our resources and a $1 billion price tag is a significant price tag over the ability to create better efficiencies.”

During public outreach events earlier this spring the RTC attached a $750 million price tag to light rail, but engineers updated that figure to $1 billion before Thursday’s meeting to reflect current construction costs.

Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown, who chairs the RTC board, said he thought the $1 billion estimate was low.

“I’ve never heard of a light rail project finishing on time or under budget,” he said.

Brown said the light rail project would require asking the public to financially support a transit project with a scope limited to a singular part of the valley — a tougher ask than the fuel revenue indexing (FRI) ask that has brought millions of dollars to the county for various infrastructure improvements.

The bus rapid transit project is expected to be funded by $125 million in FRI funds. The rest of the funding would come from federal grants.

In addition to requiring federal funds, the proposed light rail was projected to need $380 million in local funds raised through a special improvement district and sales tax.

North Las Vegas Councilman Isaac Barron said light rail “would be nice to have” but that he and his city planners weren’t convinced it could achieve the critical mass of ridership needed to be sustainable.

The annual operating and maintenance costs for the bus-rapid transit system along Maryland Parkway are projected to be $8.3 million. The existing bus route costs $6.8 million. Light rail would have cost $13.3 million to operate and maintain.

Barron also raised concerns the light rail system wouldn’t connect to his constituents: “Light rail would have no connectivity. We’d be looking quite a way out before my community is tied in.”

The recent public comment period brought in 759 comments: 72 percent in favor of light rail, 13 percent preferring bus rapid transit, and 4 percent supporting either light rail or bus rapid transit. Favoring light rail were members of the business community who argued it would spawn more development than any bus ever could, and residents who felt light rail would help bring Las Vegas to the modern age.

Route 109, the existing route along Maryland Parkway, could be called the busiest outside of the Las Vegas Strip. It sees approximately 9,000 transit riders daily. Approximately 32 percent of all households in the corridor have no vehicle available to them.

long live the bus
A rendering of what a bus rapid transit system along Maryland Parkway would look like.

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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, two children and two mutts.

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