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July 29, 2015

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Nevada seeks boost from proposed federal high-speed rail spending

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Steve Marcus

Andrew Mack, chief operating officer of DesertXpress Enterprises, points out California high-speed rail routes during a news conference for the DesertXpress high-speed rail project March 25, 2010. A line from Victorville to Palmdale could tie DesertXpress to the California high-speed rail line.

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A model of a proposed Las Vegas station is displayed during a news conference for the DesertXpress high-speed rail project Thursday, March 25, 2010.

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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.

‘Tis the season for saving, but there’s at least one spending uptick in the president’s forthcoming budget that would likely be welcome news for Nevada.

Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced in Philadelphia on Tuesday that the Obama administration wants to invest $53 billion more in high-speed rail systems over the next six years, and $8 billion of that is expected under the new budget.

The Obama administration and congressional leaders like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have tried to paint access to transportation -- whether that’s roads, planes or trains -- as key pieces of economic recovery.

Obama set a target of having high-speed rail accessible to 80 percent of Americans within the next 25 years during his State of the Union speech last month.

“This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying -- without the pat-down,” Obama said.

In Nevada, the hope is that some of that money goes toward shoring up the efforts of the Western High Speed Rail Alliance projects, namely projects to connect Las Vegas to California, Arizona and other western states.

But it’s not clear that the increased attention on high-speed rail is really going to be enough to make a difference in Nevada.

The U.S. High Speed Rail Association has estimated that building a truly interconnected high-speed rail system across the United States would take a lot more than $53 billion. Its best guess is that it would cost about $600 billion over the next 20 years.

That’s not a price tag many are willing to swallow, especially in Washington, where there’s been a distinct changing of the guard.

Last year, when Democrats controlled the House, the chief transportation guru was Jim Oberstar of Minnesota. He’d spent the past several congressional cycles planning a massive, $500 billion overhaul of all the country’s transit systems, a proposal in which he was strongly supported by his Republican counterpart, John Mica of Florida.

But since Mica graduated from ranking member to chairman, he’s been stepping away from his old position. It’s not that Mica doesn’t still want a comprehensive overhaul of national transportation -- it’s just that when it comes to high-speed rail, he’s not so sure that the government has the right approach, or should be footing the bill.

“This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio,” Mica said in a statement Tuesday.

Through stimulus and other dollars, the Obama administration already has put $10.5 billion into high-speed rail projects; but the result, Mica says, has exposed more flaws in the system than it has bred confidence that the government should be investing more.

“What the administration touted as high-speed rail ended up as embarrassing snail-speed trains to nowhere,” Mica said, adding that the plan was too hinged to Amtrak’s 'Soviet-style train system,' with 76 of 78 projects involving the heavily-subsidized railroad monopoly.

Biden, in his remarks Tuesday, gave lip service to Amtrak, which he spent his Senate career riding on a near-daily basis between his home in Wilmington, Del., and his office on Capitol Hill.

But Republicans prefer the idea of private investment going to fund high-speed rail. That’s actually a model that’s been pursued more ravenously in Nevada.

Nevada’s DesertXpress project, which has all but replaced the maglev proposal as the project of choice, has been a private venture that never went looking for stimulus funds. But government money could come in handy for making that project become more functional: presently, the proposed rail line connects Las Vegas with Victorville, Calif., but the longer-term goal is still to connect Las Vegas with Los Angeles.

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