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Taxi line at McCarran
Figures released this month from western airports show McCarran International has surpassed Phoenix in passenger numbers, becoming the 6th busiest airport in the nation. With the status also come challenges. The airport became a national spectacle a year ago when a flood of outgoing passengers caused 5-hour long lines, leaving some people swearing never to come back. As KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports, a similar bottleneck is looming for arriving passengers.
SOUND: Inside Airport
PLASKON: The inside of McCarran International Airport looks a little like a casino, slot machines; flashing ads, sometimes costumed show girls and lots of other people. 88 percent of passengers that come through here are from somewhere else in the world and the airport draws half of Las Vega's 37 million annual visitors. But the visitors are increasingly held captive according to McCarran's 2004 fiscal report. Because of lines, the report says, passengers spent nearly 9 million dollars more than usual on concessions while waiting. The lines are not only inside, but outside. Passengers wait for cabs an average of 30 minutes in winding lines.
SOUND: Airport Security "How many, two, okay number 6"
PLASKON: Airport security tightly controls the flow of people to taxis. Security tells visitors to wait below numbered signs then cabs pull forward to pick up customers. Visitors shell out more than 30 million dollars annually for taxi rides to and from the airport and McCarran's terminal now handles more cabs than any other single terminal in the world, 7,800 each day. It's not hard to find frustrated tourists.
PLASKON: "Do you think this is inconvenient?"
VISITOR: "Oh it sure seems to be?"
PLASKON: "Do you think there should be a public transit system?"
VISITOR: "Oh Ya!"
PLASKON: Airport officials say this curb space is one of the top ongoing challenges, but transportation experts do have a solution. Todd Walker, Monorail spokesperson says it wasn't long ago that the county considered many mass transit options to relieve the airports lines of exiting passengers.
WALKER: I know there is a desire to go that way from the resort community. Just think about it, for you and me the next logical place would probably be to the airport for a resort corridor fixed guideway system. And that was part of the 1996 Annual Regional Transportion Commission Report.
PLASKON: Back then former Airport Director Robert Broadbent supported mass transit to the airport. But in the Regional Transportation Commission's 2002 Strategic Plan the airport isn't even mentioned. The RTC points to today's Airport leadership as to why. Clark County Director of Aviation Randall Walker has a different approach.
WALKER: First off, we are not aware of any mass transit system that has had a huge benefit to an airport.
PLASKON: Despite the fact that 12 other airports do have mass transit systems, Walker defends taxis as best for McCarran. He says each tourist carries 2.3 bags and he doesn't think they want to wrestle with their own luggage.
WALKER: No one wants to wait 45 minutes for a cab.
PLASKON: Gary Shapiro is President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association. He organizes Las Vegas largest convention, which draws tens of thousands of passengers through McCarran every year. He says the airports aversion to mass transit threatens to limit the growth of conventions.
SHAPIRO: It is a very very busy city but it doesn't have the traffic infrastructure right now to support it and it is absolutely an issue as far as we view our own expansion.
PLASKON: He says mass transit to and from the airport would be absolutely terrific. Without the airport directors' endorsement however the Regional Transportation Commission can't pursue it.
SHAPIRO: The airport officials and taxis are going to have to figure out another way.
PLASKON: Instead of mass transit, the airport is relying on machines like this one unveiled this month. The hope is that the machine's easy-pay option will get drivers into parking lots and, away from the bustling curb. The airport also hopes that expansion will alleviate the congestion.
PLASKON: Tractors are working land east of the airport. Among the plans are a final wing for McCarran's terminal that will be done in spring. A new bus maintenance area and consolidated auto rental center are also going up. After that airport deputy director Rosemary Vasiliadis, says McCarran will embark on a final expansion, relocating a major traffic artery and building a whole new terminal that will have it's own curb space.
VASILIADIS: So we have demolished about 400 hundred houses and Relocate Russell road to the north for a stand alone facility.
PLASKON: Airport facilities are at maximum capacity with 41 million passengers this year. But officials say in Spring, a new terminal is scheduled to open, increasing capacity to 45 million. If passenger growth rates continue like they have been at 14 percent Vasiliadis says the airport will be in trouble.
VASILIADIS: Certainly if we keep on having double digit growth it will pose a challenge in how we manage our current gates.
PLASKON: If growth rates continue, McCarran would surpass it's maximum load of 55 million passengers within 3 years with no room for expansion. Vasiliadis and Convention and Visitors Authority assure the public and businesses that double digit increases in passengers won't continue because there simply won't be enough hotel rooms and condos to serve that level of passengers. In order to not overburden the airport before 2015 when new facilities are to be complete officials are projecting a limit of 2 percent annual growth for the next 10 years. But average passenger increases over the past decade have been three times that and in McCarran's 57-year history it has never seen below 5 percent growth over a prolonged period of time. Clark County did take a big step toward building a new airport 7 months ago, buying property in Ivanpah 30 miles south of Las Vegas for an airport twice the size of McCarran.
WALKER: Unfortunately we have a lot of pain to go through before that.
PLASKON: The pain says Clark County's Director of Aviation, Randall Walker is because Ivanpah isn't scheduled to open until 2019, 4 years after McCarran reaches projected maximum capacity. And even that timeline he says is optimistic.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR