Light Rail in Vegas? Still Far Off, But Closer Than We Thought


The inside of a car in Seattle’s light rail system. Photo by Geoff Carter

There is good news and bad news. The bad news is that Las Vegas still doesn’t have a light rail blueprint, in spite of the fact that we’ve been talking about our need of one since the late 1990s—“when the RTC had a proposal to use a Union Pacific (right-of-way) to Henderson,” remembers Tom Skancke, CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance. But the good news is that the discussion continues at the Regional Transportation Commission, and it has recently produced twins: According to RTC’s General Manager Tina Quigley and Director of Engineering Services Dave Swallow, there are two entirely specific light rail discussions taking place right now, both of which could hopefully go somewhere.

First and foremost is the ongoing study of rail transit through the Maryland Parkway corridor—beginning at McCarran and continuing north through the University District to Downtown. Swallow is project manager on that study, and he’s rightly excited about it.

“The corridor is populated with a lot of high-activity centers,” says Swallow, citing UNLV, Sunrise Hospital and the clusters of high-density housing lining the street as a few likely reasons Maryland could receive the city’s first rail line. And Swallow adds that a Maryland line could also serve McCarran in an unexpected way: not in bringing passengers into town, but in giving the airport’s some 15,000 employees an easier commute. In Skancke’s view, that’s the true purpose of light rail, anyway: “It’s about moving workforce to workplace,” he says.

Swallow envisions Maryland as a complete transportation corridor that could accommodate light rail or streetcars, plus automobiles, cyclists and pedestrians, and it could all begin with a central transit lane like the ones that express buses already use on Grand Central Parkway and Casino Center Boulevard. He confesses that might reduce the number of traffic lanes on parts of Maryland from six to four, but it shouldn’t have an impact on traffic: “The volumes are low enough that that’s not an issue.”

Meanwhile, Quigley says that Rossi Ralenkotter, President of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, has created a “Transportation Steering Committee” that includes among its membership representatives from Clark County, City of Las Vegas, Metro, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and many others, including—remarkably—representatives from Las Vegas’ taxicab companies. Ralenkotter wants to increase convention business by 25 percent, with which “comes a very serious challenge” of how to move people between the Convention Center area, the resorts and the airport, says Quigley.

“This Committee is starting to recognize that we have to start finding ways of financing mass transit. And light rail is part of that discussion,” she says.

None of this surprises Tom Skancke, who says that light rail is something Las Vegas can no longer afford to let roll by.

“From a globally-competitive point of view, this community has got to start making the infrastructure investments to be a multi-modal society,” he says. “The world revolves around connectivity. We’ve got to connect our community better.”