Backdoor Tour

On my first trip to Las Vegas in almost seven years, I expected to see a monorail rocketing down the middle of the Strip. Since I’d last visited I knew one had opened for business, and I was oddly excited about riding it. What can I say? I have a soft spot for monorails, left over from my years in Seattle, where the mile-long monorail, a vestige of the 1962 World’s Fair, is a beloved artifact.

When I arrived in Las Vegas, the Strip looked much as it did on my previous trip. Pedestrians still swarmed on the sidewalks, gawking at all the gimcracks and gewgaws; traffic was still dense and slow moving. But the thing I expected to see zipping high above Las Vegas Boulevard, on a single rail supported by a series of massive pylons, wasn’t there. Maybe, I thought, Las Vegas hadn’t actually built a monorail. Then, on an early-morning run along the Strip, I began to notice signs for it. But except for one conspicuous neon-ringed entryway located between Harrah’s and the Imperial Palace, it seemed like the monorail was the only discreet thing in an otherwise indiscreet town. Eventually I located the beginning of the line, the southernmost station, deep inside the MGM Grand.

An exceptionally long dark-green-glass building, the MGM is set with its length perpendicular to the Strip. When I entered the casino, I began checking the overhead clusters of directional signs for the monorail. I followed the signs past a rain-forest–themed restaurant; a glassed-in environment stocked with live lions; endless slot machines and blackjack tables; and on and on and on, and then someplace around CSI: The Experience, where guests are invited to test their “inner crime solver,” I realized that I’d lost the trail. The overhead signs no longer mentioned the monorail. So I backtracked through a food court and took a turn into what looked like a parking garage. When I finally located the damned thing, I was amazed to discover that it cost a whopping $5 for a 3.9-mile ride.

I boarded one of the vaguely aerodynamic-looking automated trains with, at most, two dozen other passengers and stared out the window at the backside of Las Vegas. No Eiffel Tower or Brooklyn Bridge here, no dancing fountains or singing gondoliers—just the plain poured-concrete facades of parking garages and the unadorned rear ends of massive decorated sheds. As the little train glided from station to station, I couldn’t figure out why someone had decided to put an amusement-park ride pretending to be transit in this distinctly unamusing location. What were they thinking? What I had imagined as a swift beeline down the length of the Strip turned out to be a slow meander, because the monorail makes a significant jog to the east, first to stop at the convention center and then the Hilton, both located over on Paradise Road, before it swings back to the Sahara Hotel.

Gobsmacked by the illogic of the thing, I started rooting through the archives of the Las Vegas Sun in search of an explanation. In the mid-1990s, as new casinos like New York New York and the Venetian transformed the Strip into a linear theme park, the notion that a monorail could help alleviate traffic and improve air quality emerged as conventional wisdom. By the end of 1996, various public and private entities had come together around a bold $1.5 billion scheme calling for a 15-mile system linking the airport, the Strip, the convention center, and downtown. Predictably, there was a struggle over control of the project and whether it would benefit the economically troubled city of Las Vegas or just the Strip (which lies outside city limits, in unincorporated Clark County). Then-Mayor Jan Laverty Jones pushed for a public agency, the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), to spearhead planning and development of the monorail. At the behest of the casino owners, however, the Clark County Commission anointed the county’s aviation director, Robert Broadbent—known for overseeing major construction projects at McCarran International Airport—a sort of monorail czar. Ultimately the county and the Strip won out. Then, less than a year later, Broadbent retired from his public-sector job and reemerged in the private sector as manager of the MGM Grand-Bally’s Monorail Limited Liability Co. He’d slipped through the proverbial revolving door, going from leader of a major public-works project to front man for a consortium of casino owners looking to build a privately funded monorail, precisely as Jones had feared.

The project was then divided into three phases. The first section, no surprise, would run along the Strip and be funded privately through tax–exempt bonds. In theory, it would someday connect to a publicly funded expansion line leading downtown and, later, to the airport. Broadbent marched the first phase past endless disputes among casino owners. The resolution of these disputes and the interests of the casinos determined the monorail’s peculiar route.

In August 2000, financed by a $650 million tax-exempt state bond, construction began. As it neared completion three years later, Broadbent died and the monorail was named for him. After numerous postponements to work out technical problems, the system officially opened on July 15, 2004. It promptly shut down in September for nearly four months after one of the trains’ wheel assemblies went flying off and, a few days later, a piece of a driveshaft went clanking to the ground. The RTC, which had been working to secure federal funds to build phase two, suddenly cooled to the idea. When the Federal Transportation Administration denied funding for the downtown extension in 2005, Mayor Oscar Good-man told the Las Vegas Sun, “I wish the monorail well … but we are not going to mourn it.”

By the time I got off at the end of the line and slunk through the back door of the Sahara, I was thoroughly confused. I hadn’t expected anything as straightforward as a subway ride, but I did think the conveyance would be better integrated into the overall Las Vegas experience.

I imagined some sort of themed transit. In this country, monorails are typically associated with Walt Disney and world’s fairs. Generally speaking, if you build a monorail—rather than, say, a light-rail system—you’re making a statement. You want attention. Therefore, the monorail should run right smack down the middle of the Strip, where the people and the views are.

But the Las Vegas Monorail isn’t about logic or even transportation. It’s more like a civic parable, a moral lesson about what happens when, as Broadbent reportedly boasted, you build the world’s first privately funded public transit system. The monorail doesn’t run down the center of Las Vegas Boulevard because one or more of the casino owners didn’t want it there. A truly public project could have overridden those objections. As for the hugely logical connection to McCarran, a mere three miles south, the monorail spokeswoman Angela Torres says it is still in “the very beginning stages.”

On the Strip, as I walked south from the Sahara, I couldn’t help noticing the crowded bus stops. As it turns out, in 2005 the RTC started running a flashy double-decker bus called the Deuce up and down the Strip. It costs $3 a ride and is very popular, averaging 35,000 passengers a day. The monorail has been attracting about 17,000 a day, roughly a third of its predicted ridership. Next year the RTC will introduce a new service, a ride from the Strip to downtown via a “train-emulation system.” While this sounds even more 21st century than a monorail, it’s more commonly known as “bus rapid transit,” planningspeak for a bus with a dedicated lane and sophisticated stops that work like transit stations. So phase two is due to arrive shortly. If you’re looking for a speeding train on a single track, however, good luck: the new monorail is actually a bus.

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