Rethinking the Transportation-Hospitality Complex

On the surface, transportation to Las Vegas seems to work well enough. Outside of getting tunneled on their way from McCarran International Airport to the Strip, tourists are able to get from point A to point B relatively smoothly. But the apparent seamlessness of what we might call the “transportation-hospitality complex” masks its delicate nature. In other words, it doesn’t take much to throw the machine out of whack and put the Valley’s economy at risk.

Take, for instance, the possibility of a taxi drivers’ strike. This isn’t just academic conjecture, since members of the Industrial Technical Professional Employees Union—which represents drivers at Yellow Checker Star Transportation, the second-largest taxi operator in town—recently authorized a strike. If drivers were to strike, and YCS didn’t field replacements, about one-quarter of the taxis in Las Vegas would be off the streets. This would lead to longer lines at the airport and casinos. While it wouldn’t break the system, it would certainly strain it.

Taxis aren’t the transportation-hospitality complex’s only weak spot. Labor trouble with union pilots, mechanics or flight attendants could ground flights, choking off the supply of visitors. When you’re turning over your visitor base two or three times a week, any disruption is serious.

Labor strife isn’t the only thing that could grind things to a halt. An overturned tractor-trailer on Interstate 15 can keep cars out. And after 9/11, when planes were grounded nationwide, Las Vegas became a veritable ghost town. The city’s isolation makes it a good vacation spot, but also vulnerable: Unlike cities on the East Coast, we don’t have any passenger rail service to pick up the slack.

All of which raises the question: Why doesn’t the system have more redundancy?

Tourism is Las Vegas’ lifeblood, and if the tourists can’t get into town, or can’t get around once they’ve touched down, the economy will grind to a halt. That’s why it makes sense to look seriously—more seriously than ever before—at alternatives and redundancies in Las Vegas transport. A viable high-speed rail link to Southern California might be one, and taxi alternatives such as Uber Technologies—which hasn’t gotten off the ground in Las Vegas because of regulatory issues—is another. Extending the monorail to the airport and Downtown would ease the reliance on cabs to provide much of the tourist-transportation infrastructure.

This won’t be cheap, but it’s worth considering. Even mitigating one of the many choke points in the transportation-hospitality complex would, in the event of a crisis, be an economic life-saver. As we learned during the Great Recession, it’s not always a good idea to roll the dice and hope for the best, unless you’ve got a contingency for rolling snake eyes.

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