The public agency that keeps the buses running is at a crossroads.
With its bread-and-butter Las Vegas Strip route no longer turning a profit and unable to subsidize other routes, the RTC is turning to other ways to make money.
Trip to Strip, a pilot program featuring on-demand shuttles, is designed to compete with taxis and transportation network companies (Uber, Lyft) to move visitors up and down Las Vegas Boulevard. The competition is fierce — not only from the TNCs and taxis, but from the Las Vegas Monorail, the RTC’s own buses and soon, electric vehicles navigating underground tunnels a la Elon Musk’s the Boring Company, at least on the convention center property.
“We are starting to reshape the concept of public transit. It has been a fixed route system that stops every quarter of a mile,” RTC CEO Tina Quigley told the Current. “Why would our public continue to allow us to operate that model when there are others that are more efficient? Trip to Strip’s intent is to figure out does the public react well to this concept. Can we build ridership? Can we recover our public transit significance in the resort corridor?”
“We interview our customers every year,” says M.J. Maynard, deputy CEO of the RTC. “In the last two years, 78 percent said they’d love to try on-demand service. Eighty-five percent in the resort corridor would prefer on-demand service.”
“There’s so many choices now,” Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown, who chairs the RTC board, said in a promotional video for Trip to Strip. “We, the RTC and the LVCVA have to make sure the visitor experience is as good as any they’ll find anywhere when it comes to transportation.”
In April, the RTC board unanimously approved up to $3.6 million a year for the pilot. It has spent just under $1.4 million to date, including $600,000 in start-up costs, according to the RTC.
After two months of operation, including a “soft opening” the first month, the service has generated $62,373 in revenue.
“This is a pilot program that has not been done before. We have been in full operation for less than a month and are closely monitoring our revenues and expenditures in addition to seeing how the contractor will maximize opportunities for revenues,” Quigley said.
Brown, along with RTC Board members County Commissioner Jim Gibson, Henderson Mayor Debra March, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and North Las Vegas Councilman Isaac Barron were unavailable for comment.
Transit in transition?
With large swaths of the valley (more than 112,000 households) outside the RTC’s service area, should public transit be in the business of filling in the gaps or competing with the private sector for Strip passengers?
“I think it’s a great question. Nationally, we are going to have to answer that question,” Quigley says. “My question would be why does private enterprise own that on-demand service? Do we allow ourselves to be so cannibalized? Maybe the nation doesn’t even need public transit anymore.”
“You don’t want public transit to devolve into what public housing has become,” Quigley said. “You don’t want to see public transit relegated to being a social service but you want it to be a choice.”
“I’m a firm believer in ‘disrupt or be disrupted,’” Quigley said. “The Strip has the density and the demand to generate enough money to subsidize residential routes. Where are my dollars best laid in terms of investment and farebox recovery? This is a conversation all transit agencies are having.”
“Not a great look”
It’s a conversation Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones wants to have.
“I’ve got 175,000 residents without any bus service within a mile of their house, which is half the population of my district,” Jones complained to an RTC consultant at a county commission meeting in June. “There is no bus service near Mountain’s Edge or Southern Highlands, communities that have been there between 13 and 20 years.”
At the meeting, Jones read a letter from the RTC’s Maynard, responding to one of Jones’ Southern Highland constituents, who complained her mother lacks access to paratransit service.
“Unfortunately at this time we do not have the funding to expand either bus or paratransit services,” Maynard wrote. “Any expansion to the paratransit service would directly impact our bus service. While the RTC Commission has previously received public comment requesting additional services within Clark County, without identifying additional sources of funding, the opportunity to expand services will continue to be a challenge. We provide both bus and paratransit services from a limited source of local funding.”
“‘Hey, we can’t service you and we don’t have any plans to do so because we don’t have the funding,’” Jones said, mocking Maynard’s letter. “I’ll just communicate to you, it’s not a great look for the RTC to tell constituents ‘tough luck.’”
“The commissioner’s area, in particular, Southern Highlands, is not unique,” Commissioner Brown responded. “We’ve had to ‘tough luck’ other areas.”
“I’d like a concentrated effort to get a better explanation and reasoning why the RTC isn’t in there or why it can’t get in there,” Jones said.
Why does the valley have “transit deserts” — areas the lack bus access within three-quarters of a mile?
Some neighborhoods are not fit for buses, according to the RTC.
“Anthem doesn’t want buses”
When does the RTC extend its service area?
“When a transit desert is transit-centric,” says Quigley. “In Anthem, they don’t want a bus in their neighborhood.”
“They have single-family homes. The access is circuitous. We work best on a grid system” adds Maynard. “You have to have multi-family homes, employment density, retail, employment centers.”
“It’s not fair to sprawl the system to where we aren’t going to have significant ridership,” Quigley says. “When you do make that decision to expand the system, you can’t retract it.”
The RTC is projected to generate $598 million in revenue in 2020. A recent budget estimate projects a slight decrease in Strip bus revenue and a slight increase in general service throughout the valley.
Since 2013, the agency has spent an average of $5 million a year to restore bus routes cut during the recession and an average of $1 million a year to restore paratransit service.
“We cut 200,000 service hours from the local market during the recession,” says the RTC’s Maynard. “We’ve returned the service hours and added to the area. In 2010, our paratransit served 386 square miles. Today it serves 432 square miles.”
“We currently have 732 paratransit clients who live outside the service area. Approximately 200 make their way into the service area,” the RTC said in a statement.
The RTC has added an on-demand paratransit service to eligible customers via Lyft or Tango Car. The RTC pays $15 and the passenger pays $3 — half the cost of the agency’s standard paratransit shuttle service, and only within the RTC’s service area, which leaves Jones’ constituent out of luck.
The on-demand service makes up a small fraction of the RTC’s paratransit service — fewer than 100 of four to five thousand daily trips made by traditional paratransit shuttles.
The RTC invested $526,869 in the pilot program but has realized a fifty percent savings, or nearly $539,000 compared with the cost of traditional paratransit service.
The RTC’s agreement with Teamster members, who drive the paratransit shuttles, prevents the agency from extending the on-demand paratransit service beyond its service area.
“The Teamsters’ collective bargaining agreement says no one will lose a job as a result,” Maynard said.
The RTC spent $2.7 million in fiscal year 2018 and about $2 million in 2017 on public relations, marketing costs, and consultants to promote its programs and chart its future. (See list below)
Should Strip route revenue continue its free fall, Quigley says the RTC, which is funded primarily by sales taxes, has authority from the Legislature to seek a sales tax increase via ballot initiative by 2024.
Sales taxes, which are regressive, place a greater burden on low-income residents, who often rely on mass transit.
In 2017, the RTC hired Hobbs, Ong and Associates to examine the potential of shifting to property tax revenue, but the effort fizzled, according to Quigley.
“There were issues with property tax,” says Angela Torres Castro of the RTC. “Nobody was interested in talking about property taxes.”
“We have the opportunity to make money if we deliver services our visitors want or are willing to pay for,” Quigley says. “We are government, so we don’t have the luxury of standing by to see how it all turns out.”
RTC Public Relations/Marketing contracts for Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018
Faiss Foley Warren
$99,999.96 for media and public relations FY 2018
$105,240.80 for media and public relations FY 2017
$275,000 for acting as the “program management consultant” for the RTC’s Transportation Resource Advisory Committee FY 2018
$275,000 FY 2017
$1,124,728.57 for advertising, media buying, research and social media planning FY 2018
$165,184 FY 2017
$31,500 for Hispanic community engagement consulting FY 2018
$25,919 FY 2017
$48,282 for counsel and engagement within minority communities FY 2018
$52,000 FY 2017
$15,000 to serve as a facilitator for the Transportation Resource Advisory Committee FY 2018
$974,717 for consulting regarding the RTC’s OnBoard future mobility plan FY 2018
$508,626 FY 2017
(Includes $176,071.36 to subcontractor Purdue and Marion for FY 17 & 18.)
$601,535.30 Public relations FY 2017
$50,740.53 Helped RTC develop a strategic plan and vision FY 2017
$22,017 for facilitating the Transportation Resource Advisory Committee FY 2017
Holland and Hart
$120,000 for government affairs and legislative support FY 2018
$130,000 for FY 2017
Amount for lobbying not disclosed