It may not be a light rail system, but it's pretty darn close.
With buses that look like sleek train cars, dedicated lanes on downtown streets and ticket vending machines, public transit in the Las Vegas Valley will soon have a major upgrade with the introduction of the new ACE rapid transit system.
Beginning in January, the Regional Transportation Commission will unveil the new system, which is meant to get people out of their cars and into public transit.
The ACE system aims to address the biggest complaint about regular fixed bus systems that stop every quarter of a mile -- they're not fast enough.
"We wanted to design a rapid transit system that is a fast, comfortable transit option that would be competitive with the automobile," said Tracy Bower, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Commission.
The plan is to create express bus points on the outskirts of town in residential areas in the northwest, southeast and Summerlin areas and take commuters to downtown and the Strip, where many Las Vegans work.
The transit routes will make one or two stops before heading to a central downtown location.
The heart of the system will be the Central City Terminal, at Bonneville Avenue and Casino Center Boulevard.
The facility will act mainly as a central transfer point for the ACE system, with express buses converging there.
At points on the outskirts of the city will be commuter centers or park-and-ride facilities, where riders can leave their cars and hop on an ACE.
The ACE system will open with three routes: the C Line from Centennial Hills to the Central City Terminal and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; the Blue Line, which will run on Las Vegas Boulevard from Craig Road to the Central City Terminal; and the Gold Line, which will run on the Strip from the South Strip Transfer Terminal (an already constructed park-and-ride facility) north to the Las Vegas Convention Center and on to the Central City Terminal and World Market Center downtown.
The Gold Line will have dedicated lanes down the center of the road all around downtown. Just north of Sahara Avenue, the buses will move in mixed-flow traffic.
Having dedicated lanes downtown "will make that trip a lot faster," Bower said.
The ACE system will have other benefits of light rail, including raised platforms so that riders don't have to climb stairs to get on the bus, Bower said.
"And when you board, it will have the feel of a light rail system," she said, because riders won't have to put dollars and coins into a vending machine.
Riders will get their tickets before getting on the bus. And once they are on the ACE, they won't have to swipe the ticket, Bower said.
Similar to light rail systems around the country, including Portland, Ore., a fare inspector will be on board to randomly check tickets.
"This will be a faster boarding system than regular fixed route buses and more efficient," Bower said.
Fueled by federal stimulus money, construction on the commuter centers in downtown and in the northwest are under way.
The Regional Transportation Commission has invested nearly $27 million in the two commuter centers.
About $5.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is funding the $14.9 million Central City Terminal.
The terminal will have 16 vehicle bays, about 100 bicycle racks, a self-repair bicycle station and preferred parking spaces for hybrid vehicles.
The $11.9 million Centennial Hills Park and Ride Facility will be located on the north side of Elkhorn Road, between Durango Drive and U.S. Highway 95.
The facility will have 900 parking spaces, bike racks and an air-conditioned building for passengers awaiting a bus. About $8.8 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is funding that project.
The trip for passengers leaving the Centennial facility to downtown is estimated to be 18 minutes because the express bus will use the high occupancy vehicle lanes on Highway 95.
The Transportation Commission plans to use the remaining federal stimulus money allocated to public transit, about $19 million, to construct the Green Line route on Boulder Highway. Construction on that route is expected to begin early next year.
Work on a future route to Summerlin, the W Line, which will include a park and ride facility on Westcliff Drive at Durango Drive, is expected to begin late 2010.
Eventually, the commission would like to build an ACE route that will slice through the valley on Sahara Avenue, from the east end to the west side, Bower said.
After the recent ground-breaking ceremony for the Centennial Hills park-and-ride facility, Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Ross said he expects the express bus will be popular among northwest commuters.
On top of that, he said, the ACE system will go a long way toward helping relieve congestion on valley roadways and therefore help the environment.
With the ability to seat 44 people on the ACE, there is potential to get the same number of cars off the road.
"The more cars we get off the streets and freeways means we're doing our job," said Ross, who is a member of the Transportation Commission.
The system is cost-effective compared with light rail, Bower said. The recently finished light rail system in Phoenix cost about $70 million a mile.
The 14-mile Gold Line, including the dedicated lanes, cost $50 million a mile, Bower said.
The system will operate with 50 new ACE buses at a cost of about $1.1 million each.
When the ACE system opens next year, fares will be the same as for the Deuce, Bower said.
Fares next year will be $3 for one ride, $7 for a 24-hour all-access pass, $15 for a three-day all-access pass and $65 for a 30-day all-access pass.
Contact reporter Francis McCabe at email@example.com or 702-387-2904.