The Little Engine That Can't Break Even


I hate to say it. I wish it weren't so. But there's no sense prolonging the agony.

It's time to tear down the Las Vegas Monorail.

I was among those who initially believed the $650 million monorail could be successful. Despite skepticism about the less-than-ideal route and the suspect financing scheme, I was optimistic the monorail would become a legitimate new transportation option within the resort corridor.

But it hasn't happened.

In fact, the monorail has been a flop, failing after more than three years to attract even half the projected numbers of riders. As a result, the monorail is in financial trouble. Last week, Moody's Investor Service downgraded the monorail's bond rating again and predicted its cash reserves will run out in 2010.

Let's not allow things to plummet to that point. Instead, I suggest that officials publicly admit the monorail is not viable in its current form, tap the fund set aside for its removal and get going on the dismantling. If Dr. Lonnie Hammargren wants one of the monorail cars for his back yard, let him have it.

Business gurus have a common refrain: Some ventures are successful and some are not. That's just the way it is, and there's nothing to be ashamed of if an idea doesn't pan out. The wise move, they say, is to cut your losses on the unsuccessful venture and try something else instead.

Unfortunately, monorail officials don't seem ready to do this. Blinded by ego or wishful thinking, or a little of both, they're determined to keep beating their heads against the wall.

In fact, they are touting another risky option: expansion. They want to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in additional loans to extend the monorail to McCarran International Airport.

In theory, linking to the airport has the potential to substantially increase the number of monorail riders. Certainly, lots of visitors would prefer to avoid the hassle of renting a car or taking a taxi to get to their hotel.

But an airport expansion doesn't fix a fundamental problem with the monorail: For many, many visitors, the train doesn't go where they need to go. Consider this incomplete list of current and future Strip resorts not served by the monorail: Wynn/Encore, Venetian/Palazzo, Fontainebleau, Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Excalibur, New York-New York, Monte Carlo, CityCenter, Bellagio, Caesars Palace, The Mirage, Treasure Island, Plaza, Echelon, Circus Circus, Stratosphere.

Noting the size and stature of those resorts, it's pretty easy to see that the monorail is woefully inadequate in its current incarnation.

But the monorail is faced with an even tougher challenge: convincing Wall Street investors to take a chance on what, to date, has been a disastrous project. If these guys have the option of investing in a large Strip resort project or a fatally flawed monorail expansion, which do you think they are going to choose?

Add in our teetering national economy, and you have a recipe for, well, for nothing at all.

The only sensible move is to tear down the monorail and explore other options.

It's clear to me the resort corridor needs another form of mass transit, and that the need will grow in the next few years as we add tens of thousands of rooms. There are just too many people congregating in one area not to have multiple ways to get around.

We know the Citizens Area Transit double-decker buses that run up and down the Strip are the fullest in town. Continuing to expand and improve that service makes a lot of sense.

But buses aren't enough. A properly routed and designed people-mover system has a place on the Strip, but it must be affordable, accessible and efficient. Riders have to be able to get anywhere they need to go without dreading a half-mile hike at the end of their journey.

Las Vegas prides itself on being a can-do city, a place that takes chances, bucks the odds, finds solutions. This ethic is best exemplified by the resort industry, which has transformed back-room gambling into an international tourism phenomenon.

Why, then, can't we develop a workable mass transit program for the Strip? I'd think the great minds that run the gaming goliaths -- the men and women who have built Las Vegas into the world's premier gambling and entertainment destination -- ought to be able to figure this one out.

Getting these great minds to cooperate has been a problem in the past. That, in part, is why the current monorail doesn't go to the right places. But the resort ownership situation has changed since then. Two companies -- MGM Mirage and Harrah's -- now own vast stretches of the Strip, and just a few other prominent players -- Sheldon Adelson, Steve Wynn, Boyd Gaming -- own the bulk of the remainder.

Here's a new bit of wishful thinking to ponder: Later this year, as the monorail dismantling gets under way, Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid summons the big casino chieftains for a meeting. (As the "mayor of the Strip," Reid ought to be able to do that.) The agenda is simple: Let's talk about what comes after the monorail.

My guess is most, if not all, of these CEOs recognize the need for a new and better Strip transit system and would be willing to work together to make it happen.

Of course, I could be wrong. It could be that I'm giving these guys too much credit.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." A book release party and panel discussion for "Howard Hughes" is set for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Nevada State Museum at Lorenzi Park. His column appears Sunday.

 

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