Management & Operations

Transit GM Beats the Odds in Sprawling Las Vegas

Posted on February 1, 2005

Clark County, home to splashy casino resort hotels and apparently unquenchable suburban sprawl, is among the fastest-growing areas in the country. It’s estimated that 100 cars are introduced onto the local highway every day by new residents. This growth places tremendous pressure on the transit system operated by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC). The RTC contracts with ATC/Vancom for fixed-route service and Laidlaw Transit for paratransit operations. Together, they form CAT (Citizens Area Transit), which logs more than 150,000 riders per day. At the helm of the RTC is Jacob Snow, who oversees more than just the transit system. About one-third of his time is devoted to the transit system; the rest is spent administering the local streets and highway program as well as regional transportation planning. Snow still has found time to introduce a bus rapid transit service called MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) that uses glitzy high-tech Civis vehicles manufactured by Irisbus. Snow’s also just months away from putting double-decker bus service into operation on the Las Vegas Strip and is spending time meeting with community groups discussing a possible light rail system that would span 33 miles. Snow took time away from his jammed schedule to speak with METRO Editor Steve Hirano about the past, present and future of public transit in the Las Vegas area. How has the population explosion in Clark County affected the public transportation system?
We figure that for every 1,000 people who move here, they bring 752 automobiles with them. That works out to more than 100 new cars a day that are being added to our surface transportation network. That increases congestion. We can’t build roads fast enough to keep up with that kind of rate of addition to the volume of traffic. We also have air quality challenges because of that. All of the negative externalities of traffic growth are here and we’re dealing with it. It slows down the progression of buses. We have to add buses just to maintain headways on several routes. We’re not adding service; it’s just to maintain the existing frequency because the traffic is bad in specific areas. Has it been difficult to add buses and drivers?
Yeah, it has. In both areas, it’s been a challenge. To keep a qualified workforce that’s going to be able to keep up with the demand. We used to characterize ourselves as a young bus company and have transitioned out of young now. We’ve been around since December 1992, and we have a fleet that we need to replace. We’re not like the standard public transit agency because we’re a 24-hour city, which has three big shift changes and we have several 24-hour routes. It means we put a lot more miles on our buses, and they’re subjected to a lot more use than in most systems. We dont have a morning peak and an afternoon peak; we have peaks all around the clock. RTC outsources its fixed-route service to ATC/Vancom and paratransit service to Laidlaw. Do you buy the equipment or do the contractors take care of that?
We buy all the equipment. In the past we had a paratransit fleet that was 100% CNG. It wasn’t a requirement; it was just something that we thought was the right thing to do. A little while ago, we got our first fixed-route buses powered by CNG. There were a lot of people internally who had some real doubts about that, but they turned out to be the best buses we’ve ever procured. So we’re going to get more CNG coaches. We do think, however, that the future for fixed-route buses in terms of propulsion technology is hybrid. So we’re starting to get some hybrids. We’re on the verge of a 100-vehicle order. The MAX service using 10 Civis vehicles was launched last summer. How has it worked out?
We’ve been really pleased. It’s been a way for people in this community to sit up and take notice of transit, to have transit take on some real meaning and relevance. Many of the people in this community do not identify positively with the standard transit bus. The Civis vehicles have been appealing to people who normally drive automobiles. They’ve been getting out of their cars and taking the MAX. We have roughly 5,000 people a day using the service, and ridership in that corridor is up 30%. We’re really thrilled about that. How have the Civis vehicles worked out from a maintenance standpoint?
Every time we buy a new vehicle we have some maintenance issues in getting it up to speed. We’ve had a few issues with the Civis vehicle. Overall, we’re extremely pleased with the vehicle. It’s a 20-year transit vehicle, not a 12-year vehicle. It’s really proving to be that. We’re very pleased with that overall concept and the overall operation of the system. We’re in the process of procuring more. I mentioned that we’re going to hybrid technology in the future. The plan is for future Civis vehicles to have full hybrid propulsion. That’ll make them faster, quieter and even more attractive to the traveling public. What do you think is behind the negative perception of the standard transit bus that you mentioned earlier?
Most of the people in the community have never ridden a CAT bus and likely will not in the future. It’s partly because many people view them as a moving roadblock. It really doesn’t matter whether you have a bus or a rail system — the technology isn’t so important — it’s the way that you deploy the technology. What we’ve found with the MAX system is that it resonates with the people in Las Vegas. With the MAX, you have a nice attractive vehicle that looks sleek, is 100% low floor and has a center drive platform and great big windows. It also has an honor system for fare collection, and armed, uniformed officers ride it periodically. It’s also got a dedicated lane and stations and platforms with off-board fare collection. Are you planning to expand the MAX system?
The interesting thing was that we happened upon getting the right-of- way for the first MAX in North Las Vegas. It was a combination of dumb luck and good timing. Since then, and since other local governments have seen the technology, we have people lining up and saying, “OK, we will give you the right-of-way if you will bring this technology to our community.” We’ve selected three corridors where we’re going to be deploying this technology. We have offers for more, but we can only go so fast. So we’re working on acquiring additional MAX vehicles. When do contracts come due for ATC/Vancom and Laidlaw?
Both expire in 2007. The ATC contract is a full four-year contract. The Laidlaw contract is a two-year contract with a two-year option. Has there been any reason to consider bringing the services in-house?
There are both pros and cons to outsourcing. The biggest pro for us in privatizing the service delivery is that we figure if we were going to take it in-house, we would have to cut the service that we offer by one-third. We’d rather see more service on the street. That’s the primary reason our plan is to continue to follow that model. What are the chances of extending the newly minted monorail system? What would the RTC’s involvement be?
We don’t have any involvement with the first phase of the monorail whatsoever. Our involvement to extend it has been as a grantee. The contract we have to do that has expired, however. The current arrangement with the Las Vegas Monorail team has dissolved. Right now, everything is on hold. I don’t think we’re going to be able to go forward in any way, shape or form on the monorail until the first system is able to sustain a long period where they can show they’ve got their operations issues worked out and I think, more importantly, that they generate positive cash flow. Any other system enhancements in the works?
We are going to start operating double-decker coaches, probably in late June. We’ll have 50 of them. That’s going to add a tremendous amount of noticeability. People are going to fight to be up on the top deck to get the best views. These are going to replace all of the service that we have that’s the standard trunk service along the Strip. They’re also going to run along a couple of other high-volume corridors where even with articulated coaches we can’t meet the demand. The double-deckers, with the additional capacity, are going to help us do that. What’s your biggest challenge these days?
Keeping up with all the growth that this community has seen for the past five decades. And it doesn’t seem to be stopping. We’ve not only got to keep up with transit demand but also to be relevant to the rest of the community because we know that we can’t build any new freeways. We need to be able to add capacity to the transportation system in other ways. And that’s going to have to be done with transit. Our focus for the future is not what we’ve done in the past; our focus is for good, high quality rapid service that we’re getting with the MAX and we’re looking to some regional fixed guideway. And whatever we do, we’ll link up with the monorail somewhere. The fixed guideway you mentioned would link Henderson, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, about 33 miles overall. What type of transportation are you looking at?
We’re looking at diesel multiple unit, electric light rail or some sort of a rubber-tired alternative like the MAX. What would you say has been your biggest accomplishment since you joined the RTC in 1999?
I came into a new system that had grown way too fast. We were at a point where we couldn’t pay our contractors on time. The board didn’t know about it. I didn’t even know about it when I came in. When I found out, we had to do some tough things. We had to cut service and raise fares. Fortunately, this is a can-do community. We put together a community coalition and came back with ballot initiative that passed in the middle of a recession. That saved us financially and allowed us to do some of the things that we feel really good about, like extending our MAX service. We wouldn’t be putting double-decker buses into service if that ballot initiative had not passed [in 2002] or be considering a regional fixed-guideway system. It’s given us a ticket to the future.

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