As Vegas Travel Grows, Airport and Roadways May Face Challenges

Las Vegas' travel industry is growing faster than its airports and roadways can handle.

And like it or not, widespread traffic jams and frequent backups at McCarran International could become increasingly common if the city's recent success continues.

Rossi Ralenkotter, president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, and Clark County Aviation Director Randall Walker on Tuesday shared their vision of the future with the Clark County Commission.

Both spoke of new developments designed to fuel the robust economic growth most cities crave. But both also conceded that development must include new infrastructure to prevent the community from choking on an overabundance of visitors.

"Our goal, of course, is never to allow airport capacity to be an impediment to the economic growth of the community," Walker said. "We've been successful to this point.

"But based on what we've seen, it's going to be a real challenge" going forward.

Ralenkotter, citing the city's historic "can do" attitude, believes a solution will be found. But his presentation also outlined the many growth-related challenges in store.

Last year's visitor count has not been calculated, but Ralenkotter said it probably exceeded 38 million. That would eclipse 2004's record-high 37.4 million.

Looking forward based upon recent trends, he estimated Las Vegas could host between 49 million and 59.2 million visitors by 2015.

Since nearly half of all local travelers arrive by air, any growth will tax McCarran.

The nation's sixth-busiest airport is already nearing its ultimate capacity of 53 million annual passengers, a limit imposed by a runway system that cannot be expanded because of nearby development.

Relief from a proposed second international airport in Ivanpah Valley is unlikely until 2017 at the earliest, Walker added, which means McCarran must expand to capacity, then squeeze in as many travelers as possible without alienating them with unreasonable delays.

McCarran now has 94 gates and will expand to 103 in early 2008 when a fourth D-gates concourse debuts. The airport's ultimate 117-gate limit will arrive in early 2011, when Terminal 3 opens near Russell Road.

The airport processes about 450,000 passengers per gate per year, well above the industry standard of 400,000, Walker said.

"Using the convention authority's midrange projection, we have to be able to do a lot more than 450,000 passengers per gate if we're going to be able to accommodate the growth," Walker said. "Can we get more passengers through our existing gates? We can, to an extent. ... But that really puts a large stress on the facility."

Ticketing kiosks, off-site baggage check-in and in-line baggage screening systems are among the improvements needed to maximize McCarran's efficiency, he added.

Year-end passenger data has not been calculated, but McCarran probably hosted 44.2 million arriving and departing passengers last year. That would top an airport-best count of nearly 41.5 million set in 2004.

Other data showed by Ralenkotter indicate likely congestion to come at McCarran.

With the Dec. 22 debut of the South Coast, the Las Vegas Valley ended 2005 with approximately 134,200 guest rooms, up from 90,046 in 1995.

By 2015, however, construction announced or under way could increase that count to 180,000 to 210,000 rooms.

Numerous supporting projects such as shopping malls and convention centers are also planned to fill those rooms.

"The confidence that corporate America and the entrepreneurs of Clark County have in the destination is demonstrated in these numbers," Ralenkotter said. He added, "Remember, there are some projects that have not been proposed yet that could be added to this mix, increasing the number of rooms."

Citywide hotel occupancy typically hovers in the mid- to upper-80 percent range. To maintain that level, Las Vegas must attract 200,000 new annual visitors for every 1,000 rooms added, Ralenkotter said.

Each hotel room added produces 320 additional air passengers per year, Walker said.

So should the city expand to 180,000 rooms, McCarran would need to process 14.7 million more passengers per year.

Las Vegas' expansion isn't guaranteed, however, given challenges such as cruise lines, tribal casinos and limited air service from several coveted foreign markets. Disruptive events such as Hurricane Katrina or the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks are also a constant concern.

"If you take a look at CNN for any one hour, there's probably three or four things happening that could have an impact on Las Vegas," Ralenkotter said.

Growth also isn't entirely dependent upon increased air service. A nearly $1 billion effort to make Interstate 15 an eight-lane highway between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles area is under way, as are plans for a $1.7 billion alternate "superhighway" north of the San Gabriel mountain range. The Hoover Dam bypass should also ease traffic to and from Arizona, Ralenkotter said.

Commissioner Bruce Woodbury suggested to Ralenkotter that the state's resort industry do more to fund necessary highway improvements.

Woodbury also questioned Walker on the Federal Aviation Administration's controversial "right turn" proposal involving most flights taking off at McCarran.

The FAA's proposed change has upset many residents and civic leaders who oppose the prospect of jets soaring above Summerlin and the northwest valley. But Walker said McCarran's airspace capacity would drop by more than 1 million passengers annually if some type of right turn is not reintroduced.

County Manager Thom Reilly said staffers are also examining how projected travel industry growth would affect local infrastructure. That report should be presented to the commission next month.



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