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Airport users taking fewer taxis

At McCarran International Airport, lots of folks are getting onto planes. Lots of jets are zipping around. Lots of cars are packing the parking lots.

And, as always, lots of folks are catching taxicabs. But not as many as once did.

While the number of people flying through McCarran was up around 4 percent in the first half of 2007 compared to the same time last year, the amount of folks catching a cab at the airport actually dropped by 2 percent.

And that was the six-month average. At times, the decline in taxi traffic was much worse. April airport ridership was down 8 percent from 2006, officials said. And March saw a 5 percent drop from the record 315,805 cabs loaded at McCarran during the same month in 2006.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a hell of a lot of people hitching rides at McCarran. On average, a cab is loaded there every 12 seconds. But the leveling-off of cab-hailings is certainly a red flag in a town where transportation infrastructure in general is nearing a breaking point.

Officials are a bit puzzled by what’s going on.

“I’m not sure what the reasons for that are,” Harry Waters, McCarran’s assistant landside operations director, told the Nevada Taxicab Authority in May.

A cabbie I know who’s a veteran of McCarran’s traffic wars was equally stumped.

“That’s odd,” said the Checker Cab Co. driver, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Could it be that McCarran’s cab stand has hit a saturation point? That’s what happened to Strip traffic, where the volume of cars and trucks on Las Vegas Boulevard South has flat-lined. The thinking on the Strip is that the street has literally hit its capacity. Drivers simply can’t squeeze more cars per hour onto the existing pavement.

“The facility is so overwhelmed, maybe it’s sheer logistics, that they can’t load people fast enough anymore” at McCarran, my Checker driver suggested.

Airport officials dismiss that theory.

“We actually could handle more cabs here,” said Chris Jones, an airport spokesman. “We’re nowhere near reaching a peak.”

That’s because the airport recently supplemented its existing cab stand on the baggage claim hall’s east side with an overflow stand on the north side. The new stand is opened only as needed.

Could it be tourists are simply sick of long waits for cabs, and are finding other ways into town? After all, according to Jones, the average wait time for a cab is around 15 minutes (which I’d think could feel like an hour for anyone just off of an oh-so-relaxing cross-country flight). At peak times, that wait can literally be an hour.

Again, Jones puts the kibosh on that. “Generally, people’s perception of the taxi line is not as bad as the reality.”

But Jones does suggest that locals may be ditching cabs and driving themselves to the airport. Indeed, airport parking lots reported a 3 percent jump in occupancy through mid-May, compared to the same period in 2006.

My Checker driver thinks cab loadings may have more to do with problems or opportunities for cabbies, not travelers.

“The city is flooded with cabs. It could very well be there’s so much traffic in town, we can’t get into the airport,” he said.

Work along Paradise Road between the airport and the Strip has certainly been a barrier for traffic between those two points.

“And at night, drivers don’t want to go out there” to the airport, he said. “They can make more money going from hotel to hotel, to the restaurants, than waiting in line at the airport.”

Though decisive reasons for the cab slump are elusive, officials have firm plans for making McCarran easier to get into and away from.

The airport recently moved its rental car facility away from the airport, eliminating much of the rental traffic through the heart of McCarran. There are plans to relocate the economy parking lot and possibly create a so-called “park-and-call” lot, where drivers can wait for inbound passengers without circling airport access roads and adding to the congestion.

“There will be a lot of changes in where people park and how they park,” Jones said. “McCarran is going to be very different over the next four years.”

Especially when Terminal 3 opens in 2011. Today, anybody wanting to catch a cab at McCarran must do so at the cab stand outside Terminal 1. Terminal 3 will have its own cab stand, evenly dividing cab loadings between the buildings.

My Checker driver has his own idea: Maybe it’s time to get rid of the rule where taxis can only pick up people at the cab stand. After drop-offs at McCarran, cabs must drive around to a holding area known as “The Pit” before getting in line at the cab stand, even if they come across somebody wanting to hail a cab in the meantime.

Future travelers might have other options to get around. Both the Las Vegas Monorail and Regional Transportation Commission are planning rapid transit lines extending between the airport and Strip. Those plans are years away from completion, however, and still lack millions of dollars needed for construction.

“We’re working with any and all parties to improve people’s ability to move throughout the valley,” Jones said. “We’re open to different options.”

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call the Road Warrior at 387-2904, or e-mail him at roadwarrior@reviewjournal.com or OSofradzija@reviewjournal.com. Please include your phone number.

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