Las Vegas: Where Image is Important

There’s nothing subtle about Las Vegas: the strip, the lights, the extreme desert summers and yes, even its transit. As I was boarding the SDX, an articulated Wright Group StreetCar RTV, at the South Strip Transfer Terminal with my luggage in tow, a tourist with a Texan accent proclaims, “Woah, this sure is a futuristic vehicle!”

The stylish vehicles have three entrances, off-board payment, interior bike racks, and features perimeter seating and lounge-style seating in the rear.

“This is Las Vegas; we have to be different and we have to stand out,” says Jacob Snow, the general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC). “There are a lot of other things competing for attention in this town.”

And it’s not just all that there is to see and do in this 24/7 town, it’s the fact that anywhere you go in Las Vegas, parking is free. Many may require a simple validation from the establishment for free parking but many of the massive parking lots alongside casinos and attractions are all, simply, free.

Snow states, “It makes transit a very tough sell here, so we have to be more competitive. We have to compete with the automobile more effectively than other places do because we don’t have that pricing advantage for other towns where they charge for parking everywhere they go.”

Managing all transportation

The RTC oversees the transit authority, the traffic management systems and the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for Southern Nevada. The RTC started as a street and highway agency with funds set aside to build local roads, and then in the 1980s it was named the MPO for Southern Nevada. Transit was added in the 90s and the traffic management role was added in 2004.

Snow says, “It’s a dream. I talk to many of our peers in the transit industry around the country and some of them have great relationships with their MPO and some of them don’t.

“Those that have great relationships with their MPO, it’s still an additional bureaucracy; it’s still an additional step that they have to go; it’s still additional work that they have to do.” He continues, “For us, those barriers don’t exist. The same board that runs the transit agency is the same board for the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“It’s very seamless for us; there aren’t barriers, there aren’t silos that we have to deal with, there aren’t hoops we have to jump through.”

The Freeway and Arterial System of Transportation (FAST) is an integrated intelligent transportation system (ITS) operated by RTC. FAST monitors and controls traffic through freeway and arterial management, traffic condition detection, and traffic control.

Brian Hoeft, FAST director, took me to the room where it’s all monitored and there is access to the more-than 300 cameras on the freeways and surface streets where they monitor everything and where the Nevada Highway Patrol (NHP) dispatch is also located.

The key to monitoring it is to understand the patterns, Hoeft says. “If you see an abnormality, you can trace it back to the cause.” That not only helps them in directing or redirecting traffic to mitigate congestion, but the transit side is getting that information in real-time, as well.

New ideas to transit

Prior to heading the RTC, Snow was the assistant director of aviation for McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. He went to work for the airport out of college and worked his way up.

While it is an airport, there is also a lot of surface transportation, including the automated fixed-guidway system between terminals. While there, he was also responsible for getting the first leg of a freeway to the airport built, including a tunnel underneath the runway.

“When there was a vacancy at the Regional Transportation Commission, I started getting calls and threw my hat in the ring,” Snow says, “and got the job after about a 9-month national search.”

He says one of the advantages he brought to the position was that he didn’t know anything about the transit industry. “I came in, I saw a lot of things that didn’t make sense to me that I wanted to change: the look, the shape, the feel of our bus system.

“To our community, a bus to them always meant some vehicle that looked like a toaster that was painted white rolling down the road. Just a square, boxy thing.

“We have probably the newest bus fleet of anybody in the country and we worked to get that way,” he says. “We have, I think, one of the most unique bus fleets of any bus system in the country and we’re very proud of that.”

One of the other things he remembers from when he first came to the RTC was that they would go to the board every summer and say it gets hot in the desert and when you’re on a bus, opening and closing doors all the time and there are a lot of people on the bus, it’s going to be hot on the bus. “That was the way it used to be when I got here 13 years ago. It’s no longer that way.

“We have different equipment and we have set a higher standard for when we buy new equipment and the industry has responded with more efficient equipment when it comes to keeping people comfortable on board a bus,” says Snow. “That used to be a huge issue for us here, but we responded and the industry responded. We got great equipment and you can be comfortable on a bus even when it’s hot outside.”

I ask Snow why they chose the vehicles they did and he explains one of the primary features is that they’re built with a stainless steel frame so that they last longer. “A typical bus under the federal government standard lasts for 12 years. What’s more challenging for us here is that we have some of our routes operating seven days a week, 24 hours a day and we put a lot more miles on a bus per year than any other system that I’m aware of.

“The equipment from overseas, it lasts longer and we might pay a little more for it, but we get a bus that lasts for 20 years.” He continues, “The frame is different, the components are different and we, quite frankly, the warranty service has been better and the overall customer service has been superior to anything we’ve purchased in North America.” He adds, “Sorry to say, but there’s a huge difference.”

The other vehicles that catch a lot of attention in the area are RTC’s double-decker buses. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Expo was held in Las Vegas in 2002 and the precursor to Alexander Dennis was exhibiting its double-decker bus. When Snow saw that, it reminded him of his experience from Hong Kong.

“When I was 19, I served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as a missionary for two years in Hong Kong and that’s a transit paradise,” Snow tells. “Every form of transit that I know of exists in Hong Kong.

“Most of the places I went, I went on a double-decker bus. I loved ... to get up there on the top and to enjoy the view and to get right up front in the windows; that was fun.”

When he saw the double-decker bus at Expo he thought that would be ideal for running on the Las Vegas Strip route. At that time, that route was losing riders. He says, “We made that change and overnight, the ridership went up by 40 percent.” He adds, “Ever since then, it’s generated every year, a multi-million dollar profit that has allowed us to deal with the depression, which is what it’s been like here; it hasn’t been a recession, it’s been a depression and it’s still going on.

“If it weren’t for what we have on the strip, I don’t know that we would have survived very well as a system.”

This past year they just broke records for ridership on the strip; in October they averaged 40,000 riders per day.

The double-decker bus costs as much as an articulated bus, even one that’s manufactured in North America, Snow says, but it takes up less space on the road, gets better gas mileage, better fuel economy and is a lot less for them to maintain.

“When it comes to saving money, we went with a vehicle that attracted 40 percent more riders, we reduced our maintenance cost significantly, our fuel economy went up; we liked the bus so much that we got a ton of additional buses to put on high-volume routes,” Snow says. “Whenever we put those coaches out, the ridership would go up seven or eight percent just because people like them.”

Complete Streets

Snow tells a story of when he was in a park while in Hong Kong talking to a lady, asking her how she got to the park. She responded back, in Cantonese, that she took No. 11.

“I said, there’s no bus No. 11 that comes to this park,” Snow says. And he explains she held two fingers up, them turned them down to make them “walk.” He adds, “The slang in Cantonese, if I took bus No. 11, it means I walked.

“Every trip that we take begins with bus No. 11,” Snow stresses. “If people can’t access the bus stop safely because the sidewalk isn’t there or it’s not wide enough or it’s too close to the street, it’s going to be a problem to sell transit.”

Snow says, “You might have heard of a guy named John Inglish [CEO, Utah Transit Authority], well I’ve seen him go out on the road preaching about transit, but the last few years he’s been talking about how we need to look at transportation ... to form these bicycle-pedestrian authorities.”

Snow says they’ve assumed that role by building sidewalks, widening sidewalks and putting in bike lanes. “To us a street isn’t complete unless it serves everybody, not just automobiles.” He states, “Every mode of transportation needs to be designed for; it needs to be designed for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as automobiles.

“That’s a big effort for us, to make transit that much friendlier for those that need to take bus No. 11 to get there, and once they get dropped off, they take bus No. 11 to where they’re going.”

RTC is excited about a new bicycle-sharing system that will add access to the system. Getting people to transfer stations with bike racks where people can drop the bus, get on a bike and ride to their ultimate destination. Snow mentions they’ve been working with a major employer downtown that has contributed a million dollars toward the effort. He adds, “We’re really excited about expanding that program in the valley to improve access.”

The RTC has used 5307 formula funds to pay for new shelters to improve the amenities. Initially the RTC had no influence over the bus shelters because it doesn’t own the street rights of way. “Even though we fund them, they are owned by the city or the county where the road is and the sidewalk is part of the right of way, too,” says Snow.

The city or county had private companies come in and put their own equipment in and it wasn’t very nice, wasn’t maintained, the city or county would keep the revenue they generated and that would go into their general fund. Snow stresses, “We would never see any revenue, yet we receive all the complaints and we get all the hassle and we have no control.”

Snow says State Sen. John Lee didn’t like the situation and changed the law and gave RTC complete authority over bus shelters. There were half a dozen contracts that terminated at different times and as Snow says, “It was just a mess.

“We put a lot of resources into it,” he says. “We subscribe to the window theory, which means if the bus shelter out there ... looks like it’s not functional and it’s tagged with graffiti and it’s not well-maintained and there’s garbage around, we can’t attract a customer. We need to send the right message to attract customers.

“Image is very important, especially in Las Vegas,” Snow says. “And if it’s a hard sell for transit, parking’s free everywhere you go, we’ve got to up our game that much more.”