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Light Rail Is Working In Other Western Cities -- Could It Work In Las Vegas?

green_line_trax_at_gallivan_plaza.jpg

By Garrett (Flickr: Green line Trax at Gallivan Plaza) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Trax, the light rail system in Salt Lake City, was started for the Olympics.

One plan calls for a light rail system to get tourists and casinos workers to the Strip. Another calls for street cars in downtown Las Vegas.

These are just two of many suggestions that have emerged from a recently released regional transportation plan.

But, we’ve heard these ideas before. The idea Las Vegas needs a light rail system to move tourist quicker from the airport to the Strip.

Supporters say Las Vegas will benefit from the economic development that springs up around each station.

Light rail’s opponents say it’s too expensive. 

This is not a new debate, in fact it has already taken place in cities like Phoenix and Salt Lake City – where cities operate light rail systems.

So what can we learn from each of them?

David Swindell is the director of the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University. 

He said Phoenix started its light rail project 15 years ago as a way to spur economic development and he says in that regard it has worked.

Swindell said light rail works for economic growth because unlike bus stops, which can be moved and changed to accommodate changing transportation patterns, light rail stations are permanent.

"That allows individuals who are thinking about long-term investments to know that a train station is going to be there a lot longer than necessarily a bus stop would," he said.  

Support comes from

Swindell pointed to the downtown campus of Arizona State University has example. He said the downtown campus would not be possible without the light rail system and because of the campus thousands of students pour into Phoenix's downtown area. 

"We now have 11,000 students and growing in the downtown presence, which is a huge economic development boon for the downtown as well," he said.

He said that has brought a huge resurgence to the city's urban core. 

"A lot of that is the presence of the campus but a lot of it is also the presence that is tied specifically to light rail and some of the additional businesses that are relocating and now when you see the emergence of condo towers and apartments in the downtown core that's indicative of a healthy and vibrant downtown, which is critical for the health of a metropolitan area," he said. 

Despite its success, the city of Phoenix is still subsidizing the rail system with a sales tax. Swindell said that from an economic development standpoint the system has more than paid for itself.

"For every dollar investment that we've made in light rail, we've gotten $4 return on investment, but you have to look at that from the perspective of the economy as a whole," he said.

Swindell said when deciding whether to install light rail a city should really look at why it is being installed.

"What are the goals you are trying to achieve?" Swindell remarked. "Are you trying to achieve alternative transit forms? Or are you trying to facilitate economic development? Trains are really good for economic development. Buses are really good for transit."

Las Vegas has a problem similar to what Phoenix faces and that's density. Swindell said that to receive federal dollars for the light rail system Phoenix had to show stations were being built in high density areas. 

So, planners had to find places where density could be intensified. 

"One of the reasons why the community made the investment in light rail is it's a tool for helping concentrate development, trying to pull development back into concentrated areas around where existing infrastructure is already built out," he said. 

Swindell agrees with many people that a light rail line for tourists is a good idea for Las Vegas. 

"Certainly, some kind of connector between the airport and Strip for the purposes of moving tourists could make some sense," he said.  

Moving thousands of visitors efficiently was a major part of why Salt Lake City built its light rail system, according to Brian Grimmett, a reporter and online editor for KUER in Salt Lake City. 

Grimmett said the system was largely pushed along by the 2002 Winter Olympics. It started with just a few trains running in the downtown area and up to the University of Utah, where the opening and closing ceremonies were held. 

Now, Trax, as it is called, features more than 44 miles of rail lines. It includes spurs into the suburbs and it is linking to a new commuter rail line that brings workers from other counties to Salt Lake County.

Grimmett said the rail is still subsidized, but it is not running a deficit. 

"Taxpayer dollars do, especially for the light rail, pay for a large amount" he explained.  

It might be surprising that taxpayer money is being spent on a project in a state known for being conservative, but Grimmett said it has worked out. 

"They've  been able to come in and build a pretty robust transportation system in place that you wouldn't think possible with kind of conservative values," he said. 

He said many people use the system to commute and companies with offices downtown offer workers Trax passes as part of their benefits package.

While the system in Salt Lake City has been called one of the most successful light rail systems in the country, Grimmett said a question still remains for transportation officials in Utah.

"Now, that we have this great light rail system, how do we connect that last mile? How do we get people from their homes or their businesses or to the grocery store from the light rail stops," Grimmett said. 

For Swindell, the big question is what will commuting look like in the future? Many technology companies are working on automated, electric cars. 

Swindell believes there could be a time when instead of owning a car, or waiting for public transportation, a person could call an automated, electric car from an app on her phone that would take her wherever she needed to go whenever she needed to get there. 

"We're going to see that the nature of public transit may change drastically where we don't need these massive capitol investments in fixed rail, but rather city's may decide to invest in a fleet of automated cars that will take you where you need to go when you need go," he said. 

 

Guests

David Swindell, director and associate professor, the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University; Brian Grimmett, online editor and reporter, KUER

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