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Better Luck for Vegas Monorail?

System Reopens After Months-Long Closure for Repairs

By Steve Friess
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 28, 2004; Page A04

LAS VEGAS, Dec. 27 -- When it debuted in mid-July, this city's sleek $650 million monorail was supposed to be the envy of the nation, a high-tech public transit system paid for without taxpayer money that would be so popular it could even turn a profit.

But during a busy convention season, bits and pieces of the trains started falling off, potentially endangering anything below, and the system was shut down indefinitely for major repairs. By Thanksgiving, newspaper cartoonists and tourists alike were dubbing it "monofail" and deriding the futuristic cars sitting idle on the costly tracks.


A train pulls into the MGM Grand station. The Las Vegas Monorail opened to much fanfare July 15. (Photos Joe Cavaretta -- AP)

After being closed for 3 1/2 months, at a cost of more than $9 million in fare revenue, the system reopened over Christmas weekend, just in time for Las Vegas's busiest tourist week of the year. It was a Christmas gift from Clark County officials to monorail operators who hope to erase the memory of one of the city's most humiliating and expensive debacles.

"It's one of the most embarrassing things that's ever happened to this city," said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor tourist newsletter, which has 65,000 online subscribers. "The inside joke among locals is that every time you drive under the monorail track, people say, 'Look out!' "

As a public relations gesture, the monorail is free to the public until Wednesday morning. The move seems to have worked: Christmas drew a system-record high of more than 45,000 passengers. Many were local residents, said Todd Walker, spokesman for Transit Systems Management, the nonprofit corporation that runs the trains.

"The idea was to invite everyone out to use the system and give them a feeling for what it does," Walker said. "They're the ones who say what's useful and make recommendations to visitors. We can try to generate some positive word of mouth going forward."

They'll need it. The Las Vegas Monorail, which runs north and south along a road to the east of the Strip, has struggled with glitches since its ballyhooed July 15 opening. First, a technician opened the doors on Aug. 16 on the wrong side of the cars facing a 25-foot drop while passengers were on board. Then, on Sept. 1, a 60-pound wheel assembly fell off a moving car.

A week later, on Sept. 8, a six-inch-wide washer came off another train, prompting the closure. No one was hurt in the incidents, and experts later determined the events were caused by maintenance problems and a badly aligned drive shaft that has now been fixed.

"It's a smooth ride and a fun one, too," said Angela Lorenzo, 58, of Arlington, who was visiting her son for the holidays. "You see the Strip from a very different perspective. I wasn't concerned about the problems it had before. Honestly, I don't live here, so I didn't even know about them."

The monorail's success or failure could have a lasting impact on whether other jurisdictions around the nation go into the sort of deal Las Vegas has set up for this system.

"The eyes of the transportation world are really on Las Vegas to see if this can work," said Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), a staunch monorail supporter who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "So far, it's not looking so good. Isn't it always touted that private industry does it better than government bureaucracy? I don't believe that is necessarily so at all times, but let's hope it's so here."

The Las Vegas Monorail deal is unique -- and that may account for its safety problems, some experts contend. The trains run on a 3.9-mile route, with six stops connected to major hotel-casinos as well as one at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Transit Systems Management is a private entity that reports to the Las Vegas Monorail LLC, a board appointed by the governor.

Still, it is largely a privately operated venture funded by construction bonds sold to investors using the state's bond rating but with debt insurance so Nevada taxpayers are not liable in a default.

Monorail officials project that 50,000 riders a day -- a reasonable prospect in a city that has greeted a record 40 million visitors this year -- would make this the nation's only profitable major public transit system. That is, not only would it pay for itself, but it would result in as much as $10 million extra for use on upgrades and future portions of the system. The system averaged 28,000 riders a day in its first 48 days, a figure that officials expect to rise once visitors discover it.


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