Streamlining bus service

Two things motivate motorists to leave their cars and trucks at home and ride mass transit instead: money and time. In Las Vegas, $4.20-per-gallon gasoline is taking care of the former, and the Regional Transportation Commission is taking steps to improve the latter.

The Citizen Area Transit bus system provides affordable, practical service for people who live and work within the valley’s urban core. As gasoline prices have increased, so has ridership on the tax-subsidized line.

But those who live in outlying suburban neighborhoods will continue to pay from $50 to $100 to tank up their vehicles and drive across town because CAT’s current schedules can’t get them from home to work in a timely fashion. Between frequent stops and long wait times at transfer points, it can take 90 minutes to reach the downtown transit hub or the Strip. The tedious journey doesn’t lead to a shorter workday — it’s time away from family.

As a result, the buses that troll parts of the northwest, Henderson and Summerlin are mostly empty.

RTC General Manager Jacob Snow wants to change that. On Thursday, he got the RTC board’s backing for express routes from points in the outer valley to downtown and the resort corridor. These buses would have only a couple of stops, if any, and get riders to the city’s major employment centers in a fraction of the time that current routes need.

“We need to get away from (buses) that stop every 500 feet,” Mr. Snow said.

Amen. Additionally, buses have the flexibility that fixed-guideway systems, like light rail, lack. Rather than require billions of dollars in capital expenditures and new operating costs, Mr. Snow’s proposal might ultimately save taxpayers money by reducing the number of empty buses on the streets and lowering the line’s fuel costs.

The express routes would be phased in through park-and-ride lots at Ann Road and U.S. Highway 95, Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway and Durango and Westcliff drives, among other possible locations. Mr. Snow the RTC would also seek to reach agreements with churches and shopping centers with parking spaces that go unused at varying times.

We’re skeptical of Mr. Snow’s contention that having new, sleek-looking hybrid buses with wireless Internet service for laptop computers will create an additional incentive for residents to park and ride. Most professionals already spend their drive time talking on their cell phones. For current commuters, having to endure the conversations of fellow bus passengers will be more of a disincentive to ride than whether the bus looks cool. If the price of a gallon of gasoline reaches $6 or $7 per gallon within the next couple of years, as some economists predict, and if the routes get workers to their jobs almost as quickly as a car, the riders will come.

According to the RTC’s plan, the first route, from Ann and U.S. 95, would come on line in the fall of 2009. The RTC wants a year to build the park-and-ride facility and acquire the new buses. But there’s no reason express routes can’t begin serving suburban residents by this fall if the RTC uses existing buses and makes pacts with private parking lots a priority.

That said, Mr. Snow and the Regional Transportation Commission deserve a lot of credit here for realizing they can do better, rethinking their entire operation and attempting to meet the demands of the people they serve. For many Las Vegas residents, these express bus routes won’t start running soon enough.

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