12/23/2004 1:00AM

Monorail's return eagerly awaited

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The Las Vegas monorail could be a big story for the third time this year if it reopens before next weekend's New Year's festivities. It would be a shot in the arm for the beleaguered transit system, which has been shut down since Sept. 8.

The closure was caused by two instances of large metal parts falling off monorail trains. The first problem was a 60-pound wheel assembly that broke off and fell to the ground. Luckily, no one was injured. Then a six-inch-wide washer fell off a train on Sept. 8, which forced officials to shut down the system.

Monorail officials hope that a week of trouble-free testing plus final reports from engineers and consultants will allow them to reopen the transit system prior to Jan. 1. It would be a public relations home run if the monorail were in service for more than 300,000 visitors to the Strip during New Year's weekend.

The following week, Jan. 6-9, is the Consumer Electronics Show, which will attract more than 125,000 attendees to the Las Vegas Convention Center. The LVCC has a large monorail station, which makes it convenient for conventioneers to use the monorail from hotels up and down the Las Vegas Strip.

Officials estimate that the cost of the monorail closure exceeds $85,000 a day. The total revenue lost is fast approaching $8.5 million.

The monorail opened to great fanfare last July 15. Great pains had been taken to test the system before it was opened to the public. The monorail builder and operator, Bombardier Inc., could not open the transit system to the public until it had test run for 30 days straight without a problem. That took six months to accomplish.

In the 48 days that the monorail ran, daily ridership averaged a healthy 28,400 passengers. The short-term goal is to average 42,500 passengers per day by the end of 2005.

The monorail runs for four miles of the Strip, from the Sahara at the north end to the MGM Grand at the southern tip. There are other Monorail stations at the Las Vegas Hilton, LVCC, Harrah's/Imperial Palace, Flamingo/Caesars Palace, and Bally's/Paris Las Vegas.

These hotels got a taste of what the monorail can do for them. And they know it can do a whole lot more. Imagine what passengers might think on New Year's. It takes 14 minutes to go end-to-end from the Sahara to the MGM Grand. On the Strip during New Year's Eve, it will take 14 minutes to walk 100 yards through the crowd.

The monorail cost $650 million to complete this segment, but it's far from finished. Plans remain in place to expand the Monorail north to downtown Las Vegas and the Fremont Street Experience, and to the south to McCarran Airport.

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