07/09/2004 12:00AM

Monorail opens, and Strip will never be the same


Years from now, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman will look back at the many landmark successes during his time leading this city. None will be more important than what's going to happen this Thursday.

That'll be the day that the Las Vegas monorail officially opens to the public.

Depending on who you're quoting, the monorail is opening late or right on time to point Las Vegas in a new direction. The building of the monorail began with a groundbreaking ceremony on Aug. 16, 2001. It was hoped that it would be ready in the first quarter of 2004, but extensive testing pushed back the opening. The thought was to have 30 straight days of perfect testing rather than to open and have something go awry, which would be a public relations disaster.

The project cost $654 million, which was raised from the sale of bonds and from private contributions from casino companies that will benefit from the service. That in itself shows how Las Vegas operates as a city - that taxpayers weren't soaked with the bill.

The monorail runs along the east side of the Strip, from the Sahara at the north end to the MGM Grand at the southern tip. The other stops are at the Las Vegas Hilton, Las Vegas Convention Center, Harrah's/Imperial Palace, Flamingo/Caesar's Palace, and Bally's/Paris Las Vegas.

It will take only 14 minutes to go end to end. That's a miracle if you've ever experienced Strip traffic. It is projected to reduce car traffic by 4.4 million trips from the Strip and side streets. Taxi drivers see a possible benefit from this. Instead of being stuck in traffic all the time, they'll be handling more fares. At least in theory.

There are five monorail passes you can buy: a single ride costs $3; two rides cost $5.50; 10 rides cost $20; a one-day pass costs $10; a three-day pass costs $25. The hours of operation will be from 8 a.m. to midnight. Eventually service may expand from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.

The monorail blueprint calls for expansion up to downtown Fremont Street and south to McCarran Airport. The service to downtown Las Vegas will put development there on a fast track. Barrick Gaming bought the Plaza, Las Vegas Club, Western, and Gold Spike casinos downtown. The Golden Nugget, Horseshoe, and Four Queens have also changed hands.

The downtown extension could start later this year with a completion date of 2007. A financial package of $450 million, including federal grants, is being finalized.

The unknown number is still this: How many tourists and locals will ride the Las Vegas monorail? The projection is for 50,000 riders a day. I think they'll reach that and here's why.

If you consider the 35 million tourists yearly who visit Las Vegas, many come from cities with mature subway and train service. They're used to mass transit already. Also, during a honeymoon period, the monorail itself will be a tourist attraction. The monorail will be brand new, hopefully safe and dependable, and reasonably priced. It may become one of those things that if you try it, you'll like it.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up radio show.