Rail, mass transit projects are needed
Ah, the elegance of train travel: I imagine wood-paneled cars, feasting on beluga caviar and Moët while conversing in Japanese and French as we pass through lush countrysides to exotic destinations. But in the United States? It would be more like the Northeast Amtrak scene from the film Trading Places: drunk partiers in ridiculous costumes led by a Belushi (Jim), celebrating to blind excess.
Whichever locomotive excursion you think is more fun, what isn't fun is Interstate 15 between Southern California and Las Vegas. A bleak desert journey that's scorching most of the year, it's a speedway with sport utility behemoths and overpowered cars operated by underskilled drivers, or a parking lot. My last trip was tolerable as the passenger of a steady automotive salesperson, while the worst was when my sister insisted we leave Las Vegas at 9 p.m. so her kids would sleep through the night. I drove the 2-7 a.m. shift, which a heavy dose of caffeine kept my eyeballs peeled and her minivan between the white lines.
Flying is the preferred method of travel if you ignore environmental damage. The flight time from Los Angeles International Airport is short, although getting to the airport becomes more arduous every year. You'd think after the 2011 expansion of Interstate 405, better known as Carmageddon, traffic would flow quicker. What actually happened is that a wider highway just encouraged more people to drive, a concept called “induced demand.”
Adding another lane to the I-15 is another example of induced demand. Yes, in the short term, it would reduce delays between Southern California and Las Vegas, but more vehicles will flood this interstate as experienced with almost all highway expansion projects. The alternative is another mode of travel.
I'm actually not a transit advocate; I'm focused on the best way to get where I'm going, which includes time, cost and amusement. Today I'm traveling from San Francisco to Oakland during Friday rush hour, and I'm biking to the grand San Francisco Ferry Building, then a short and lovely water trip to historic Jack London Square. The fare is $4.50. Compare this to 60 minutes of stop-and-go traffic for a 15-mile car trip.
So what's better? An 180-mph ride through the sands while I'm surfing my phone and sipping cocktails? Versus putting wear-and-tear on my car as I delude myself that the lights of Primm are actually emanating from the Strip?
And when I'm in Vegas proper, I don't want to drive and I don't think the chamber of commerce wants visitors driving around either. The Fremont Street Experience doesn't allow vehicles while the Strip's open container policy is intended for pedestrians only. And would any casino be heartbroken if their guests didn't leave the premises at all?
I mention all of this because more Americans are driving less and Las Vegas should accommodate them. Improvements to the bus system, bike infrastructure and especially extending the Las Vegas Monorail would be better for carless travelers and actually help all Clark County residents given the metro area's incredible growth. One of the biggest mistakes with urban planning is not establishing public transit routes and bike/pedestrian paths before a city expands. When the highways are constantly jammed, it's too late to build them.
Building train infrastructure of all types never lacks controversy. Particularly with California's high-speed rail system, It's very easy to object to these projects because of the reluctance of many to take the train, while the many political and land interests behind the connector between Northern and Southern California are inflicting a death by a thousand cuts. Will Brightline West, a much simpler railway construction project, see these kinds of obstacles?
The expansion of I-15 is going poorly, and we'll see if the high speed project will survive the travails of state and national politics to be completed by the planned date of 2027. But it was a half century ago when Raoul Duke and his wingman, Doctor Gonzo, tripped the light fantastic in a big red convertible. Now we have millennials streaming electronica and taking selfies. The youngest generation is open to trains; are we going to prepare for them?
Steve Fong, a part-time resident of North Las Vegas, is a California transit and bike advocate.
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