To most, the Regional Transportation Commission’s network of Southern Nevada bus routes is an unshowy, workmanlike thing. It’s not as visually impressive as the Monorail or the Elon Musk-designed Vegas Loop tunnels; it’s not remotely as polarizing a topic as Las Vegas’ stop-start efforts to build a high-speed rail line to inland California. Yet RTC Transit’s fleet of more than 800 vehicles and network of 39 fixed bus routes has accomplished a quiet miracle in recent years: It has defeated game-day stress.
“We have seen a notable spike in ridership on our Game Day Express,” says M.J. Maynard, CEO of the RTC. “We’re seeing about 3,000 locals and visitors [on game days]. I actually take the bus to the games as well.”
RTC’s Game Day Express routes—you can find them online at bit.ly/34QJgXd—are no-stop lines that travel from various Valley resorts to Raiders, Golden Knights and UNLV games and back for just $4 round trip. In many cases, they bypass game-day traffic entirely; the Allegiant Stadium drop-off, for example, is at Gate 11, just steps from the doors.
“I’ve been on the Game Day Express and seen the locals clapping; they’re excited because we get to bypass all the cars that are waiting to pull into the parking lot,” Maynard says. “We get moved straight on and park right in front of the stadium. It’s been really fun to watch.”
That modest miracle has, in return, allowed RTC to benefit from a miracle of its own: Vegas locals—many of whom “have never been on a bus before,” Maynard says—are beginning to understand how cities can benefit from a public transit network functioning near the top of its ability. Once Valley traffic truly begins to approximate LA levels of madness—not an “if” at this point, a “when”—some of these game-day riders might notice the dedicated bus lanes on surface streets and express buses sailing through the high-occupancy lanes on gridlocked freeways, and perhaps decide to take a bus to work or the airport.
It’s fitting that RTC Transit should gain local notice while it weathers one of its greatest challenges. As it did to every local industry, the COVID-19 closures of 2020 had a chilling effect on bus ridership—though the RTC never had the option of parking its buses and waiting it out.
“Every transit system in the U.S. was negatively impacted [by COVID], some in more significant ways than others,” Maynard says. “Our express routes on the Strip saw over a 95% drop in ridership; I mean, it just came to a screeching halt. But on the other side of things, it was a reminder of how many essential workers rely on our transit system to get where they need to go.
“We saw 50% reduction in ridership [on local routes],” Maynard continues. “But when we compared our ridership during the height of the pandemic to that of our peer transit systems around us, we saw less of a drop, because we’re a service industry town. Even though there were a lot of hotel workers unemployed, we were moving grocery workers, hospital workers, retail and manufacturing workers.”
Even in reduced form, the RTC’s numbers are impressive. Prior to the pandemic, local routes accommodated roughly 67 million individual trips annually. During the pandemic, they still managed to provide 50 million trips, a high percentage of which were for seniors and veterans.
“We’ve got a great team,” Maynard says. “The drivers and mechanics are amazing; they work really hard. They’re showing up every day, working under really extreme circumstances, and we could not do what we do without them.”
Still, the pandemic resulted in a shortfall of rider revue, which was compounded by budget cuts that preceded the shutdowns. The RTC was forced to make painful cuts, adjusting down-route frequency times and reducing service hours on weekends. It was able to put resources where they were needed most by polling riders through the buses’ onboard Wi-Fi: The provided information, delivered almost in real time, told the agency which routes and usage hours were most vital.
Then, in mid-2021, the RTC received more than $303 million in federal stimulus money, allowing it to restore the lost service hours and even expand service “into areas of the Valley that have never seen transit,” Maynard says. “We were able to provide service to about 185,000 residents who have had never had access to transit before.”
Now, with the promise of funds from the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill—and with the agency’s ridership tallies steadily ascending, now to 65% of pre-pandemic numbers—the RTC is looking to move forward decisively by building on its current strengths and modernizing its fleet.
The agency is already doing some cool things people might not be aware of, like its RTC-OnDemand service, in pilot operation in west Henderson and the southwest Valley. Similar to rideshare services like Lyft and Uber, RTC-OnDemand picks up riders at their doors and delivers them to destinations like grocery stores, medical facilities and schools within a fixed area, and to bus stops if they’d like to leave the OnDemand zone. The one-way price is just $2.
“If this works, we may use this model in other areas in the Valley,” Maynard says. “I think that it’s an opportunity not only to look at the traditional way of providing service but also another way to keep up with technology, and with consumer demand.”
The infrastructure bill funds will also help to build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line for the heavily used Maryland Parkway corridor, a bus line similar to light rail; buses travel in their own dedicated lane and collect fares before riders get on. And if all goes to plan, those buses—along with every other bus in the Valley—will be part of a zero-emissions fleet.
“We developed our zero-emission vehicle plan last year,” Maynard says.”If [infrastructure bill] funding is the right amount, we’ll be able to transition our fleet to zero emission by 2035.”
Buying electric buses isn’t the main concern—the RTC already receives funding for that—but the infrastructure bill money is needed for the facilities, staffing and infrastructure an all-electric fleet needs to run. At present, the RTC has two hydrogen fuel cell electric buses ready to roll out soon, with the option to buy more once funding sources are identified.
Maybe these advances aren’t as sexy to mass-market tastes as the RTC’s game-day miracle. Maybe onboard Wi-Fi, dedicated traffic lanes and the RTC’s recently announced partnership with the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District—offering riders access to audiobooks, eBooks and movies through the Libby app—isn’t enough to convince even some environmentally conscious Las Vegans to leave their cars parked at home. That’s all right, Maynard says. The RTC will make sure the buses are there when folks need them.
“That’s the benefit of working for the public,” Maynard says. “We get to do great things on their behalf.”
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