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September 1, 2015

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Transportation secretary envisions nation connected by high-speed rail

Reid and LaHood talk trains

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood speaks during a news conference at UNLV Wednesday, October 13, 2010. With LaHood are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Tom Skancke, president and CEO of The Skancke Company, a transportation consulting company. LaHood and Reid announced specifics of a federal loan guarantee program for a public-private partnership to expedite development of the DesertXpress high-speed rail system between Las Vegas and Victorville, Calif. Launch slideshow »

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a Las Vegas gathering of transportation officials from western states that he expects 80 percent of American cities to be connected by high-speed rail in 25 years.

LaHood spoke Wednesday night at the opening reception of the Western High-Speed Rail Alliance conference, a group that was organized to promote the building of a high-speed rail system in Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. LaHood promised to support them in their efforts and said he expects success.

“Because of what all of you are doing here and what’s going on in some other places in the country, I believe that 25 years from now, under our plan, 80 percent of America will be connected by high-speed intercity rail,” LaHood said. “It will cost $500 billion; it’s a huge investment, but we’re off to a great start. We really are.”

The alliance was created by the metropolitan transportation planning organizations in Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Reno and Salt Lake City and is chaired by Jacob Snow, the general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada.

The alliance’s first conference began Wednesday and ends Friday at Vdara. LaHood is in Las Vegas for the dedication of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge Thursday.

“You are an inspiration to those of us in Washington who have been promoting the president’s vision of high-speed intercity rail,” LaHood told the approximately 150 conference participants. “This is the starting point for America.”

The reason the nation does not already have a high-speed rail system is because “we never made the investment,” he said.

LaHood has been the head cheerleader in the Obama administration for high-speed rail and was responsible for the distribution of $8 million in stimulus funds for high-speed rail.

“Everybody says they wish it were more, but it’s $8 billion. It’s 8 billion times more than we have ever had for high-speed rail,” he said to applause from the audience.

But Nevada and other western states, with the exception of California, were absent on the list of those who received money, despite years of work on a maglev train to connect Las Vegas and Southern California.

Most of the federal money went to California and Florida, because they had been working on plans for a long time, LaHood said.

The maglev plan is supported by state officials here but not by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

A one-time advocate, Reid has switched his allegiance to DesertXpress, which proposes to build a traditional high-speed rail line from Las Vegas to Victorville, Calif.

LaHood appeared earlier Wednesday at a press conference with Reid to support DesertXpress. But in an interview after his conference speech, he said maglev isn’t totally out of the picture; it just isn’t likely to happen because it is so expensive.

“We are always willing to look at creative ideas,” he said, “But look, there’s a limited amount of money, and we need to put our resources where we think they can really benefit and where it’s cost-effective to do it.”

LaHood also said in his conference remarks that states will not succeed at getting federal support for rail programs unless they are ready to go with one plan.

“When people get their act together and they have a plan, everybody’s on the same page on the priorities, good things are going to happen,” LaHood said.

Nevada submitted an application for the stimulus money for maglev, but it was rejected because it was without support from Reid and transportation officials in California.

LaHood said the western states need to have common goals and priorities before working with the federal Department of Transportation to develop new plans.

“We have a shared vision; there’s no question about that,” he said. “But we need to start looking at the cost and then how we help them implement it.”

LaHood also said he expects Congress to pass a new transportation bill next year that will be focused on high-speed rail. He said he already has the support of House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn.

“There’s not a nickel’s worth of difference between what’s in his bill and what we want to do,” LaHood said. “And the signature program, what transforms transportation in America in this bill, will be high-speed intercity rail. We’ve agreed on that.”

The question that will have to be answered in the next two days of the western rail conference will be how to get some of that federal support to the Rocky Mountain states.

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