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Speedy new transit coming to Vegas soon? Don't bet on it

Plans are many, but development is lagging. Only a monorail is heading toward reality -- and slowly at that.

June 06, 2004|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS visitors can see and hear a gleaming monorail gliding overhead, plying its four-mile route between the MGM Grand and the Sahara near the Strip. They just can't ride it. It's still undergoing tests more than four months after it was scheduled to begin service.

Like so many transit schemes in this city of illusions, the Las Vegas Monorail remains tantalizingly out of reach.

"There are so many announcements and so many plans," said Deke Castleman, who has covered Las Vegas for 15 years and is senior editor of the company that publishes the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter. "It runs together like glue."

There are plans to extend the monorail -- designed to whisk fun seekers from one end of the Strip to the other in 14 minutes -- to downtown and McCarran International Airport, to revive Amtrak rail service between Las Vegas and Los Angeles and to build a high-speed train system between Las Vegas and Anaheim. So far, the Strip monorail looks like the only one worth betting on.

Why can't Sin City get on track?

One reason is the hodgepodge of private and public entities that oversees transit projects for this growth-mad metropolis. Resort-casinos, impatient with government bureaucracy, have installed mini-trams linking a handful of Strip sites. Nevada's Clark County has erected several pedestrian bridges at corners; three new ones near the Venetian are planned for next June. Two public agencies are responsible for the monorail and its planned extensions. Ditto for the two proposed train links to Southern California.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Las Vegas bus fare -- The Travel Insider column in Sunday's Travel section said the cost of bus fare along the Las Vegas Strip is $1.25. The fare is $2.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 13, 2004 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Las Vegas bus fare -- The June 6 Travel Insider column incorrectly stated that the cost of bus fare along the Las Vegas Strip is $1.25. Bus fare on the Strip is $2.

Many of Las Vegas' 35.5 million annual visitors are loath to forsake their cars, and none more so than Southern Californians, who account for nearly a third of arrivals. Last year, 43% of Vegas visitors overall drove there, up from 40% in 2001; from Southern California, the figure was 73%, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

The result: The four-hour drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas along Interstate 15 can stretch into nine on Fridays and Sundays, and the Strip can be virtually impassable. As Vegas tourism, which increased more than 50% in the last decade, continues to grow, so do the delays.

Relief is on the way, we're told. We just don't know when.

"There are some big dreams," said Sue Christiansen, public information coordinator for the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada.

This year has brought some transit dreams closer to reality:

* Las Vegas Monorail. "We are confident the system will be able to open this summer," said Todd Walker, spokesman for Transit Systems Management, which administers contracts for the nonprofit Las Vegas Monorail Co. But because the trains are being tested, he said he couldn't predict a date.

Walker said earlier problems had been solved: A drive shaft fell off a train in early January ("an isolated incident," he said), and there were software glitches in the automated, driverless system.

Meanwhile, the system's two contractors are paying $85,000 a day in "liquidated damages" -- more than $7 million for the $650-million project by late May -- to compensate for fare revenue lost to delays. The system was supposed to open Jan. 20.

One-way fares will be $3, compared with $1.25 for city buses that serve the Strip; existing pedestrian bridges and trams are free. The new monorail runs behind the Strip, not on it, so you'll need to do some walking. But unlike the casinos' trams, it will link competing properties, Walker said, and include a convention center stop.

The U.S. Department of Transportation last month gave the Regional Transportation Commission the go-ahead to begin final design work on a 2.3-mile, $453-million extension of the monorail from the Sahara north to Fremont Street downtown. But the transportation commission faces a tight deadline. The federal agency wants to see how the Strip monorail runs before releasing $160 million in funds for the next phase.

If that approval comes after Sept. 30, the commission will have to renegotiate its contracts, incurring higher costs, Christiansen said. At best, construction on that phase won't begin until next year, with a 2008 opening date. Later phases would take the monorail to McCarran International Airport.

* Amtrak service from Los Angeles. For decades, Las Vegas and Los Angeles were linked by Amtrak's Desert Wind long-distance train, but in 1997 the financially troubled rail operation shut down the Desert Wind. Three years later, it announced plans to revive service between the two cities and cut travel time from seven hours to 5 1/2 or less by adding a passing lane and high-speed cars.

Four years later, there's still no train.

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