The platform at the Las Vegas Monorail station at SLS Casino is practically empty around 11 a.m. on a blistering hot June day, the thermostat reaching above 110.
The next train arrives and a handful of tourists step aboard the air-conditioned car for the $5 ride. The train snakes behind the famed buildings of the Strip, passing Wynn, Venetian, Flamingo and other casino resorts before arriving at the final station at MGM Grand.
Among those waiting to get on a train at that station for the ride north are John and Meg Dougan of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The couple, who visit Las Vegas often, say they enjoy riding the monorail. Why they enjoy it is revealing. The couple notes it’s comfortable because the crowds are much fewer than for the buses that run up and down the Strip.
“It never seems to be full,” Meg Dougan said. “It’s often nearly empty.”
“We’ve never had to wait to get on,” said John Dougan.
Monorail expansion talk
As city leaders prepare for the arrival of the NFL’s Raiders in 2020, there’s talk of extending the monorail south to the proximity of the site of Las Vegas Stadium, the $1.9 billion facility that will be built partially with taxpayer dollars to host the team.
A recent traffic impact study suggested a possible expansion of the monorail 1.14 miles south from that MGM Grand station to Mandalay Bay. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the Clark County Commission has yet to discuss the plan and Ingrid Reisman, spokeswoman for Las Vegas Monorail, said there’s no timeline on moving forward with that possible expansion.
Taxpayers would probably benefit if those tentative plans fall through because the monorail has been a financial boondoggle from the start. It opened in 2004 at a cost of $654 million for its 4.4-mile route — almost $150 million per mile — and has never turned a profit.
The monorail’s financial statements show net losses of $22.65 million in 2013, $20.42 million in 2014, $15.16 million in 2015 and $16.87 million in 2016.
That’s due in part to much lower-than-expected ridership numbers. In 2000, as plans were gearing up to build the monorail, Monorail LLC projected average daily ridership of 54,600, while another firm hired by the projects’ foes, Wendell Cox Consultancy, projected a range between 18,500 and 26,600.
It turns out they were both way over the mark — daily ridership numbers hover around 14,000 today, making the trip comfortable for the likes of the Dougans.
Not that the marketers for the monorail haven’t tried to entice the customers. The ticket machines glibly note — in stark contrast to the city’s slot machines — they always pay out and the public address system inside the monorail compares the 60-foot height of the monorail above the street at the Las Vegas Convention Center to a Cirque du Soleil show. The PA also proudly notes how riders are better helping the city go green, appealing to their environmentalist side. The PA system fails to mention the other “green” consequences, taxpayer money.
But the monorail faces certain handicaps in ridership. While the location of the line behind the Strip — rather than on the street properly known as Las Vegas Boulevard — certainly maintains the aesthetics of that famous four-mile stretch of road, it means visitors have to walk a long way through crowded casinos to get to the monorail and back through more crowded casinos to return to the Strip.
Bus rides also tend to be cheaper: a two-hour pass costs $6 for the route along the Strip, while a 24-hour pass can be had for $8. A one-day monorail pass costs $12.
The report from Wendell Cox Consultancy should have provided some alarm bells before the monorail was even built, particularly its finding that the number of tourists who took what was then a free monorail between MGM Grand and Bally’s had dropped from 14,000 daily to 12,800 in the three years before the study.
Another group, Twichell and Associates, polled people in the late 1990s at Excalibur, Luxor and Mandalay Bay — where a free monorail currently exists — and asked 5,134 of them if they would pay $4 for a roundtrip monorail ride. Eighty-four percent of them said no.
Taxpayers could help foot high-speed rail
The monorail isn’t the only possible taxpayer sinkhole that may connect to Las Vegas Stadium. The site could also be home to a future station for the planned XpressWest high-speed rail. That 185-mile, dual-track line would connect Las Vegas to cities in southern California.
That company is still looking for financing for the estimated $8 billion price tag. Developer Tony Marnell had initially hoped to tap into the Federal Road Rehabilitation and Improvement program for a $5.5 billion loan, but was denied as costs ballooned.
XpressWest chief executive officer Andrew Mack told the Las Vegas Sun that the company still hopes to use federal tax dollars to help fund the project, although the climate for high-speed rail is less uncertain in the Trump administration than it was during the Obama years.
“There’s no infrastructure planned or federal direction as we sit today on high-speed rail,” Mack said. “It’s clear that health care and tax reform are priorities, and then infrastructure. We’re kind of third in that race right now.”