Las Vegas betting on monorail


Transportation: Opening of the train system plays into the town's modern look and could reduce long waits for taxis.

July 20, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS - This gambling capital is looking to the monorail to ease traffic congestion, hoping it will be the solution that has rarely lived up to Walt Disney's dream for monorails more than 40 years ago.

The Las Vegas Monorail began whisking passengers last week along a four-mile, seven-stop stretch that connects some of the city's biggest resorts and convention sites, including the MGM Grand, Bally's, Harrah's, the Las Vegas Hilton and the Las Vegas Convention Center. A party celebrating the opening ferried special guests as fireworks were set off in the sky.

The city hopes the $650 million system - all privately financed - will ease congestion along "The Strip" and shorten the waits at taxi stands that can be 45 minutes during peak times and large conventions. Nearly 20 million riders a year are expected to take the monorail for a fare of $3, or $5.50 for a round trip.

The launch of a monorail in the United States hasn't received so much hoopla since Disney launched his German-designed version at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., in 1959. The theme-park creator had hoped the monorail would become a major form of urban transportation and was said to have lobbied different mayors to build one in their cities.

But the monorail has been identified for decades more as a form of fun and entertainment than as the makings of a transportation system.

"Unfortunately, as a result, the monorail became somewhat typecast as a ride," said Kim Pedersen, president and founder of the California-based Monorail Society, a group that promotes monorails. "Zoos, amusement parks and fairs featured monorails, but U.S. cities didn't. It never was taken seriously enough."

Jacksonville, Fla., has a 2.5-mile system. Miami has a nearly five-mile loop around downtown to the city's business districts. Seattle plans to extend the mile-long monorail it originally built for a World's Fair.

Disney aside, the monorail has been more popular in Japan than in the United States. The first in the world is believed to be the Cheshunt Railway in England, which began carrying passengers in 1825.

The Monorail Society describes the monorail - not to be confused with similar systems such as "people movers" - specifically as "a single rail serving as a track for passenger or freight vehicles."

"In most cases," it says, "rail is elevated, but monorails can also run at grade, below grade or in subway tunnels. Vehicles are either suspended from or straddle a narrow guideway. Monorail vehicles are wider than the guideway that supports them."

The perception of the monorail as entertainment wasn't a problem for Las Vegas, with its bright lights, impersonation shows, glitzy casinos and high-priced shopping centers. Indeed, city officials expect many people to ride purely for fun.

"It has the same capabilities as the New York subway or the Washington Metro, but it has kind of a futuristic look," said Todd Walker, spokesman for the Las Vegas Monorail Co., the nonprofit that owns the monorail. "It's the same functionality in a prettier package."

The monorail project materialized in part because of the popularity of some of the casino-to-casino monorails already operating in the city. A mile-long system began running in 1995 between the MGM Grand and Bally's casinos. It stopped last year to make room for the new system. Long--range plans are to extend the new system downtown and to McCarran International Airport.

The system is also creating news in municipal transportation circles for its mode of financing. The project was financed by private sources and will not use tax money for building costs or operations.

Last year, Nextel Communications Inc. struck a 12-year deal, estimated at $50 million, to plaster its name on the monorail station at the Las Vegas Convention Center and on one monorail car. The monorail hopes to raise $25 million annually by selling advertising on seven stations and nine cars.

Experts said the success or failure of the Las Vegas monorail will be closely watched.

"It is what will prove or disprove to all the fans and critics whether it can work well in an urban transit system," said Harley Moore, a principal with Lea+Elliott, a transportation consulting firm in Texas.

Critics began airing their suspicions after a drive shaft fell off a train during a test in January that delayed the opening until last week. Technicians detected a glitch in a computer control system in February, another setback.

In May, people in town for the retail industry's largest convention of the year lined up in sweltering heat as they waited for taxis as the monorail quietly whooshed overhead on test runs. The system had to be able to handle seven trains for 30 days with no glitches before passenger service could begin.

While there have been grassroots efforts in several cities, including Baltimore, to build monorails or similar "people movers," many abandoned efforts because of cost. The loop in Miami, for example, cost $148 million to build in 1986 and $224 million more to expand.

Pedersen hopes the Las Vegas project will help people see what Disney didn't: the benefits of monorail.

"What Walt Disney World doesn't have and Las Vegas does is a monorail running down average city streets," Pedersen said. "People should take note of that and hopefully be able to picture it in their own communities."

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