06/27/2003 12:00AM

Vegas gets its first glimpse of new monorail for Strip


Imagine being in Las Vegas on a Saturday night and wanting to drive from the MGM Grand on the south end of the Strip up to Treasure Island to see the new sexy-themed pirate-ship battle. You can see the TI in the distance. But with cars lined up bumper to bumper and thick pedestrian traffic, it could take 30 minutes to an hour to get there.

Now fast-forward to early 2004, when the much-anticipated Las Vegas Strip monorail system is set to start. For just a couple of dollars, you can make that trip in a few short minutes.

This week Las Vegans got a look at the future of city travel. The first train of the new monorail system was delivered, and it was painted inside and out to look like a black-and-green can of Monster Energy drink.

Monster is a product of Hansen's Beverage Co., the first company to sign a commercial deal to advertise on the monorail cars. Advertisers will pay up to $1 million a year to sponsor a car in the first run, beginning early next year.

Motorola Wireless has also signed on as a monorail advertiser. Motorola believes the big payoff will come when the Strip monorail is extended north to Las Vegas's downtown casinos and south to McCarron Airport.

The first phase of the project is funded by $650 million of investor bonds.

The second phase, which would connect Sahara Avenue to Fremont Street downtown, is budgeted for $394 million. Federal grants are being sought to cover up to $169 million of that cost. The north extension is scheduled for completion by 2008.

Still to be funded is the link between McCarron Airport and the Strip.

This would complete an idea that originated in 1995, when more than $1 million was spent to study the feasibility of linking the airport, the Strip, and downtown Las Vegas by light rail.

The biggest fear of the Regional Transportation Commission is whether the monorail will meet ridership projections. These fears are based on the experience of the local bus service operated by Citizens Area Transit. Because of low ridership, fares cover only 50 percent of operating costs, with the rest paid for by sales taxes.

One major difference between the two modes of transportation will be that the RTC believes 90 percent of the monorail riders will be tourists. The bus service operated by Citizens Area Transit draws mostly local riders.

Projections of ridership for the new monorail have been based on statistics such as the 15,000 riders a day that the defunct MGM Grand-Bally's monorail transported and the 200,000 riders a day that the Disney World monorail system carries. However, both of those systems were free.

The estimate is that 50,000 riders a day will use the Las Vegas monorail in 2004. That would make the system very profitable. The break-even point will be around 15,000 riders a day.

With more than 35 million visitors coming to Las Vegas each year, the RTC feels that its ridership goals are realistic.

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