When we talk about the monorail in Las Vegas, what do you think of first? Elon Musk’s Boring Company and the Vegas Loop? Or maybe the current monorail that runs behind the Las Vegas Strip? For Vegas old-timers, we can recall the original monorail that ran from MGM to Bally’s using cars from Disneyland.
The One That Never Was
But wait! That’s not all. There’s one you probably didn’t know about that almost happened. That’s right. There was an earlier project to build a monorail right down the middle of the Las Vegas Strip. And it came “This Close” to being a reality.
Last week I spent some time down at the UNLV Special Collections and Archives, going through some files dating from 1971. That was the year the Nevada Legislature passed a law that would allow municipalities to finance a monorail system.
This law was created after a 1968 study showed that Las Vegas would and could support a “Personal Rapid Transportation” (PRT) system. Obviously, the PRT was never built. But imagine how the Vegas Strip would look if it did!
What’s Old is New
What was interesting, is that the process of making the monorail happen in 1971, was almost identical to what happened to make the current monorail system a reality. The politics, the backroom deals, the no-bid contracts, buying off the bus lines, etc.
In the case of Elon Musk’s Vegas Loop, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) ended up kicking millions of dollars over to their buddies managing the Las Vegas Monorail, before the loop project could go forward.
The 1971 monorail started out as an elevated guideway going from the McCarren International Airport, down the Strip, to the Las Vegas Convention Center, terminating somewhere downtown. With a total of 15 Stations.
As with anything like this, the cost started out at $60 million, and the final cost estimate was close to $120 million. Part (not all) of that increase was due to new features added as they went along.
The original idea was for a mono cab-like system. Think of the monorail at the airport. A metal box with windows on rubber wheels pulled along an elevated track. That moved to a more popular and “futuristic” look of a cab hanging under a guided rail, above the street.
Towards the end of the plan’s journey, it started to evolve where you had a monorail system. One track going down the street with fifteen stations. But with a push of a button and an added fee, a car could be requested to take a side rail to a special entrance at each of the resorts and you could have your own private mono-cab.
Can we say “Vegas Loop“??
What’s Old is New Pt 2
The current Monorail opend in 2004. It was built off a smaller version that started in 1995 to transport guests from the MGM Grand to the Balley’s Resort.
One of the biggest issues with the planned monorail was that no matter who built it or what they built, they needed to either include the bus system or buy them out. The operators of the city bus line had exclusive rights to all public transportation in Las Vegas.
The biggest reason the current monorail system never worked was the same politics. The fact that what I call “The Taxi Cab Mafia”, would not let the rail go where it needed to go, the airport. On the other side, we had the owner of the stratosphere, trying to extort favors out of the city council before he would let the rail line go downtown.
The end came in 1974/1975. It wasn’t the technology that killed the project. The technology behind the project was in many ways, futuristic and could easily be adopted as Las Vegas grew or the technology changed.
There were no environmental issues. Most environmental groups at that time saw no problems with it when compared to the other things we were doing to our planet.
What ultimately killed the project were politics and money. The people living here had no say in it at all. Yet, if it failed, they would be the ones picking up the tab. And that led to the money issue. Nobody could really say how much this was going to really cost and what was the real profit/loss of it all.
At that time, 80% of tourists coming to Las Vegas were by car, not by air. So why would they need a rail system? Today, 70% of all tourists arrive by air, not by auto.
The politics were also national. Not only was the original contractor awarded without any discussions and no other bids being allowed, but they were also to get 40% of the farebox revenue for forty years!
The people behind the scene included a few players who had their hands in other political issues at the time, including the Watergate scandal. That created a lot of bad press for the project
I think the final nail in the coffin for the monorail project was an issue Las Vegas is grappling with today. The unknowns created by the 1970s energy crises, the politics surrounding that, and subsequent inflation. Like today, those issues threw any predictions on ridership right out the window.
It all ended in 1975 when the State legislature repealed the law that started this journey. In an ironic footnote; In 1975, the federal government lectured Las Vegas on the need to develop a better transportation option beyond a public bus system. Just as we were burying a new public transportation system proposal!
In my research, one of the questions that kept coming up was interesting. Had this project gone to the voters and they had a say in it, and they said “Yes, let’s build this”, what would Vegas look like today??