Despite COVID setbacks, RTC is building a 21st century public transit system for Las Vegas

For the most part, the Regional Transportation Commission’s Southern Nevada bus route network is a low-key, professional thing. It’s not as visually impressive as the Elon Musk-designed monorail or Vegas Loop tunnels; it’s not as polarizing a topic as Las Vegas’ stop-start efforts to build a high-speed rail line into California’s interior. Yet RTC Transit’s fleet of more than 800 vehicles and network of 39 fixed bus routes have performed a quiet miracle over the past few years: they have beaten the stress of game days.

“We have seen a noticeable increase in traffic on our Game Day Express,” said RTC CEO MJ Maynard. “We see around 3,000 locals and visitors [on game days]. In fact, I also take the bus to go to the games.

RTC Game Day Express routes – you can find them online at bit.ly/34QJgXd– are non-stop lines that connect various valley stations to the Raiders, Golden Knights and UNLV games and back again for just $4 round trip. In many cases, they bypass game day traffic entirely; the Allegiant Stadium landing stage, for example, is at Gate 11, a short walk from the gates.

“I’ve been on Game Day Express and seen the locals cheering; they’re thrilled because we’re bypassing all the cars waiting to park in the parking lot,” says Maynard. “We drive straight and park right in front of the stadium. It was really fun to watch.

This modest miracle has, in turn, allowed the RTC to benefit from a miracle of its own: Vegas residents, many of whom “have never taken the bus before”, says Maynard, are beginning to understand how cities can benefit from public transport. network operating at maximum capacity. Once Valley traffic really starts to approach LA levels of insanity — not an “if” at this point, a “when” — some of those game-day runners might notice the dedicated bus lanes in surface streets and express buses navigating through high-busy lanes on congested freeways, and maybe deciding to take a bus to work or the airport.

It’s only fitting that RTC Transit be noticed locally as it overcomes one of its biggest challenges. As with all local industries, the COVID-19 closures in 2020 had a chilling effect on bus ridership, although the RTC never had the ability to park its buses and wait for them.

“All public transit systems in the United States have been negatively affected [by COVID], some more significantly than others,” Maynard says. “Our express lines on the Strip have seen ridership drop by more than 95%; I mean, it just came to a screeching halt. But on the other hand, it was a reminder of the number of essential workers who rely on our public transit system to get where they need to go.

“We have seen a 50% reduction in traffic [on local routes]Maynard continues. “But when we compared our ridership at the height of the pandemic to that of our transit systems around us, we saw a lesser drop because we are a service city. Even though there were a lot of unemployed hospitality workers, we were displacing grocers, hospital workers, retailers and manufacturers.

Even in a reduced form, the numbers of the RTC are impressive. Before the pandemic, local routes hosted around 67 million individual trips a year. During the pandemic, they still managed to provide 50 million trips, including a high percentage for seniors and veterans.

“We have a great team,” Maynard said. “The drivers and mechanics are incredible; they work really hard. They show up every day, work in really dire circumstances, and we couldn’t do what we do without them.

Still, the pandemic has resulted in a lack of rider review, which has been compounded by the budget cuts that preceded the shutdowns. The RTC has been forced to make painful cuts, adjusting frequency times for downlink routes and reducing hours of service on weekends. It was able to place resources where they were needed most by interviewing passengers via Wi-Fi on board the buses: the information provided, delivered almost in real time, told the agency which routes and times of use were the most vital.

Then, in mid-2021, the RTC received more than $303 million in federal stimulus funds, enabling it to restore lost hours of service and even expand service “in areas of the valley. who have never seen a transit,” Maynard said. “We were able to provide services to approximately 185,000 residents who had never had access to public transit before.

Now, with the promise of funds from the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill — and with the agency’s ridership steadily increasing, now at 65% of pre-pandemic numbers — the RTC is looking to go from forward decisively by building on its current strengths and modernizing its fleet.

The agency is already doing some cool stuff that people might not be aware of, like its RTC-OnDemand service, in pilot operation in West Henderson and the Southwest Valley. Similar to ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber, RTC-OnDemand picks up riders at their doorstep and delivers them to destinations like grocery stores, medical facilities, and schools in a designated area, and to bus stops if they wish to leave the OnDemand area. . The one-way price is only $2.

“If it works, we could use this model in other areas of the Valley,” Maynard says. “I think this is an opportunity to not only look at the traditional way of delivering service, but also another way to keep up with technology and consumer demand.”

Funds from the infrastructure bill will also help build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line for the busy Maryland Parkway corridor, a bus line similar to light rail; buses run in their own dedicated lane and collect fares before passengers board. And if all goes according to plan, these buses, along with all the other buses in the valley, will become part of a zero-emissions fleet.

“We developed our zero-emission vehicle plan last year,” Maynard says. “Yes [infrastructure bill] funding is the right amount, we will be able to take our fleet to zero emissions by 2035.”

Purchasing electric buses is not the main concern – the RTC already receives funding for this – but infrastructure bill money is needed for facilities, staff and infrastructure including a fully electrical needs to operate. Currently, the RTC has two hydrogen fuel cell electric buses ready for deployment soon, with the possibility of purchasing more once funding sources are identified.

Perhaps these advancements aren’t as sexy to mass-market tastes as the game-day miracle of the RTC. Perhaps the onboard Wi-Fi, dedicated taxiways, and RTC’s recently announced partnership with the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, providing passengers with access to audiobooks, e-books, and to movies via the Libby app, aren’t enough to convince even some environmentally conscious Las. Vegans leave their car parked at home. It’s okay, said Maynard. The RTC will make sure the buses are there when people need them.

“That’s the benefit of working for the public,” Maynard says. “We can do great things on their behalf.”

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Melvin Z. Madore