The spectacular view from the Las Vegas Monorail. (Wikipedia)
Those who followed
the rise and fall of the Seattle Monorail Project
will remember a key moment: City Council member Peter Steinbrueck's desert conversion. Steinbrueck in 2004 visited Las Vegas with the monorail project's executive director, Joel Horn. Like a 5th century pilgrim calling upon a pillar-sitting stylite monk in the Syrian wastes, Steinbrueck left a skeptic but returned a convert after seeing the marvel of his elevated St. Simeon: the Las Vegas monorail
Despite Steinbrueck's born-again boosterism, the Green Line in Seattle mercifully collapsed the next year under the weight of its untenable financial model. Nevertheless, as I predicted when voters finally put the Green Line out of its misery, monorail boosters and opponents would find future opportunities to say, "I told you so."
Seattle's transportation woes, especially the Alaskan Way Viaduct debate, have seen some onetime Green Line boosters remind anyone who will listen that everything is worse because the monorail isn't there to help move people through the north-south waterfront/downtown corridor, especially would-be Green Line beneficiaries in West Seattle. If only we'd built the Green Line, goes the lament. We'd be 20 years ahead of solving this traffic mess.
In the meantime, Steinbrueck
has undergone another conversion. This time he's decided against running for a sure-win re-election to devote himself to not an elevated solution but the opposite: a surface replacement for the earthquake-vulnerable Viaduct that would almost eliminate "elevated" transport from the city (an exception being the barely chugging 1962 Alweg monorail, itself nearly dead from intentional neglect during the city's Green Line dithering).
But now, the other side of the "I told you so." Peter, have you been to Vegas lately? Your much-admired Las Vegas monorail is in serious jeopardy. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal
, ridership is way below projections and, worse, is declining year over year.
March 2007 ridership is down about 3 percent from March 2006, and a whopping 36 percent from 2005. Revenues are falling short of expenses and the line is being kept afloat by a dwindling reserve to cover losses. The good news for Vegas is that their $650 million non-profit monorail project is not publicly financed. The bad news: a credit rating firm has given them junk-bond status and predicts the monorail could be in default as soon as 2008. Last year's losses are estimated to be about $20 million.
Vegas monorail boosters
at one time predicted as many as 50,000 riders per day. The monorail hasn't been able to average even half that. They need about 27,000 daily riders to cover costs.
In short, the Las Vegas monorail is in serious trouble. What to do?
There's one answer: hire showgirls.
In an effort to promote the Vegas monorail, the line's promoters have hired leggy, mini-skirted "ambassadors"
in sexy stewardess outfits to work the Las Vegas Strip, passing out discount coupons to boost ridership. It might work, I suppose. The Strip is where you'll see lots of "Girl's Gone Wild Film Crew" t-shirts.
I didn't see any of these high-level diplomatic dignitaries on a recent whirlwind visit to Vegas, but I did have a chance to ride the monorail and gain some man-on-the-Strip insights into its problems.
First, on the plus side, the stations are good looking and the ride is fine, though it seems less like transit than a kind of shuttle ride you'd take at the airport between gates. The cars are small, have few seats, although with the ridership, that's not really a problem.
On the downside, it's expensive. A single ride is $5; two rides is $9; an unlimited day pass is $15 – more than a lobster dinner at Vegas prices.
Another problem is location
. The monorail couldn't run down The Strip because it would have blocked the views of all the fantasy architecture, neon, and jumbo-trons touting entertainment has-beens. (Did you know that Carrot Top is not only alive but playing the Luxor?) Why walk The Strip if you can't see that stuff?
Also, being elevated, a monorail is a street-life killer. One of the main attractions of the boulevard is people-watching – street life achieved not by urban density so much as urban perversity, Disneyland style. Who wants to watch from the air?
So the monorail runs along the backside of The Strip stopping at stations connected to major hotels and gambling joints, from stations at the Sahara to the Flamingo/Caesar's Palace to the MGM Grand and points between. But the problem here is that in getting the monorail off The Strip, it is now hidden backstage. It doesn't have the visual landmark presence like Seattle's Alweg (thanks to its iconic connection to the Space Needle and Elvis) to make it part of the cityscape. And it's invisible to most tourists.
Worse, feeding passengers
into the hotel complexes puts visitors into carefully crafted mazes that make it difficult for you ever to find the street again. You wander an obstacle course of shops, restaurants, casinos, bars, and other attractions. As a result, hopping up and down The Strip by monorail is untenable, though it is a convenient way to get from one end to the other quickly (in about 15 minutes).
I was surprised when I asked about the monorail at a state tourism office. They seemed unenthusiastic about it. They handed me fare and route information, but then encouraged me to take a wheeled "trolley" or one of the double-decker shuttle busses that runs up and down the Strip at grade. They're easier to hop on and off and you can see the action at ground level. If you're stuck in traffic, no problem. Part of cruising The Strip is being entertained while stuck in gridlock.
In short, it seems to me that the Vegas monorail is ill-conceived.
Which is not deterring monorail boosters, gamblers who are eager to double down. They are proposing to build a $500 million, four-mile extension of the monorail to get it to the airport. Why is it that cities like Seattle and Vegas have so much trouble getting rail to airports in the first place? That seems like it would probably be useful – at least the thing would have some distinctly useful purpose. And according to the May 18 USA Today
, tourism and airport traffic in Vegas are booming. But how is a nearly bankrupt, junk-bond-rated entity going to build more monorail?
I didn't find that answer in the desert. Maybe if Peter and Joel flew down there for another weekend they could figure something out.