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May 5, 2015

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Will federal high-speed rail push help Nevada?


Steve Marcus

Andrew Mack, chief operating officer of DesertXpress Enterprises, stands behind a model of a proposed Victorville station during a news conference for the DesertXpress high-speed rail project Thursday, March 25, 2010.

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 »

DesertXpress News Conference

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. Launch slideshow »

The Obama administration is trumpeting major new investments in high-speed rail beginning in the new fiscal year.

The sums aren’t enough to fully finance a high-speed rail system, but they are considerable: $53 billion over six years toward developing and laying track for a high-speed rail system the administration hopes will crisscross the country a quarter century from now.

The announcement is earning praise from several corners of the high-speed rail industry, including some who envision large developments for Nevada, one of the few places in the country that has broken ground on high-speed rail.

But before Nevadans get too excited about the administration’s new investment initiative, consider this: None of that money is likely headed to the Silver State.

In Nevada, the flagship high-speed rail venture is the DesertXpress, a line that, as currently planned, would connect Las Vegas to Victorville, Calif. — about an hour’s drive outside of the ultimate destination, Los Angeles.

It’s also a privately funded venture, and expects to remain so.

“We’re not considering any (federal grant) money at the present time,” said Lee Haney, a spokeswoman for DesertXpress, on Wednesday night.

At almost no point in the state’s short experiment with high-speed rail has a Nevada-based project been part of the federal grant funding equation, either because they were deemed ineligible — the case with the floated maglev project — or because they were, as in the case of DesertXpress, private ventures that never bothered applying for funds.

About a million dollars of stimulus money went to the Western High Speed Rail Alliance to help pay for feasibility studies, but those are projects that remain in the planning stages. DesertXpress managers have relied only on the government to furnish loan guarantees to attract investors.

Government grants could come in handy for the DesertXpress project. The plan that DesertXpress and the California high-speed rail authority have in place would eventually link the line from Victorville to Palmdale, Calif., and from there into the rest of the California high-speed rail system, once it is up and running. California has received the largest portion of federal grant dollars doled out for high-speed rail projects thus far.

But from Nevada’s perspective, the thing hampering high-speed rail development isn’t so much a guaranteed source of money as it is guaranteeing that its private venture will have a way to connect to the national grid.

While California’s rail authority is working with the DesertXpress team, DesertXpress is not the Golden State’s top priority project; a line connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles is. That’s its prerogative, as such funding is being funneled through the states’ agencies to pursue what priorities they see fit, with the help of federal dollars where they can match funds from state coffers.

That’s left those watching from Nevada’s side of the border unsure when high-speed rail will actually connect Las Vegas to another hub — and those time lines aren’t something the administration is addressing.

“We know of their plans, they know of our plans,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said when asked about the Obama administration’s plans to urge more coordinated planning between private projects, like DesertXpress, and the administration’s other state-by-state investments. “It’s part of our plan ... they do not want to be disconnected.”

The administration’s plan is, in large part, to drum up enough enthusiasm for high-speed rail through investments and incentives that it will take off like the interstates did under Dwight Eisenhower; a vision it has tried to popularize with its mantra since the State of the Union address: “We do big things.”

But when connecting the dots between parts — like Las Vegas to Los Angeles — of those big things, the administration is, in many ways, punting the details to a Congress that has punted on the issue of transportation reform for years.

The U.S. High Speed Rail Association has estimated that building a truly interconnected national high-speed rail system is going to take a lot more than $53 billion: Its best guess is about $600 billion over 20 years.

That’s not a price tag many are willing to accept these days.

That wasn’t the case the past few years, when Democrats controlled the House, and the chief transportation guru was Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota. He had spent the past several congressional cycles planning a $500 billion overhaul of the country’s surface transportation systems; a proposal that was strongly supported by his Republican counterpart, Rep. John Mica of Florida. Part of the bill they presented dealt with high-speed rail.

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

“This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio,” Mica said in a statement Tuesday, of the Obama administration’s pronouncements.

Through stimulus and other dollars, the Obama administration has already 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 on passenger rail.

Mica also called attention to the inefficiency of the Federal Railroad Administration — a division of the Transportation Department that is responsible for regulating passenger trains, but has focused throughout most of its history on policing freight.

Lobbyists and industry experts say the FRA does not appear to have been ready for the unprecedented push toward high-speed rail — making that agency ripe for overhauling once Congress turns its attention to transportation.

But that’s no short order in a Congress as split as this one. Even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, a bill to fund the country’s roads, rail lines, pipelines, and other transit networks proved impossible — meaning that the country hasn’t had a real long-term plan in any of those areas in place since 2009.

LaHood, though, is confident that a transportation bill can be completed by August.

But Democrats in Congress don’t sound quite as assured.

“Sen. Reid agrees with Secretary LaHood that surface transportation reauthorization legislation must be a high priority for the 112th Congress and hopes it can be achieved this year,” said a spokesman for Reid. “Not only will the legislation improve Nevada’s crumbling infrastructure, but it will create thousands of jobs and strengthen our economy.”

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  1. The drive on 15 between Victorville and Las Vegas last December was one most dangerous experiences I've had in many years. Going 70 mph in the slow lane, I was being passed now and then by sports cars on the shoulder to the right.

    A River of Lights going and coming; slow down and speed up even with no accidents. I15 is maxed out.
    Generic 80 mph rail transportation between LV and LA using the Cajon Pass should have been in place 20 years ago.

    Using 'Madoff' and 'Soviet-style train system' FEAR analogies to to stall the project identifies the real problem - a lack of leadership. What is clear is that John Mica doesn't have any substantive understanding for the need of rail transportation, except around Washington DC...

    Amtrak has 'Soviet-style' trains? Does that mean Missile Parades and Red Army Choir music at the train depots? Borscht instead of burgers at the food counters?

  2. This is the LV Mono-rail on failure steroids. This train will never pay for itself. It will just become another drain on our tax resources! Just who it will make rich with tax dollars is unclear but this is a cynical political payoff to contributors & cronies, alike. It's no wonder NV & the USA have monetary problems. Bureacrat's can't find specious programs fast enough to waste our tax dollars on!

  3. Obama & Biden's "investment" (another spending atrocity) should be tabled until such time as we recover from the economic devastation they have already caused us. Even in good economic times, government-operated systems are dismal failures. How about keeping the intrusive, spend-crazy government liberals out of the mass transit business. It is unlikely these bullet train lines would pay for their own operation, so we taxpayers would have yet another federal disaster we would have to subsidize. We should cut-off all federal subsidies for Amtrak right now.

  4. Isn't 11 trillion dollars debtload not enough yet? Even in Switzerland, one of the world's leading train and public transportation nations, our train system was not built overnight. It took decades to get where we are , and the train company went through very rough periods.
    It's an illusion to believe that pumping in 35 billion dollars will get the thing going. In fact, it's nothing but big talk and bubbles. somebody tries to gain votes by coming up with this pipe-dream story. As long as gas is as cheap as it is right now in the U.S. it makes absolutely no sense to build a train system. It could work but then there would have to be heavy taxes been taken from the car drivers in order to finance all that. That's how it's being done in most other countries in the world, and that's where gas isn't as affordable just like in the U.S.
    I have serious doubt that the U.S. citizens will be willing to pay more for their gas in order to finance this public high speed train system phantasy. Good luck, anyways.

    From Switzerland

  5. OK, Commentators, focus: How is a Las Vegas Economy going to survive as prices rise for gasoline and jet fuel?? We move our customers in and out of here by car and by airplane. It takes a certain number of customers spending a certain amount of money to pay wages and carry the overhead. We've seen it before that when fuel prices rise, our numbers go down. If Las Vegas is going to survive, we need to make our numbers. That means we have to get customers in and out of here, using some means of transport which is either very fuel efficient or does not use petroleum-based fuel. That is what we've got to do, or Las Vegas will shrivel up and die.

  6. yeah, Mr Goodman, agree with you. But 35 billion dollars for a sophisticated high speed train system....this sounds a little too good to be true. Like I said, you can't cover the entire US all over sudden with such an highly ambitious project. There are very good companies, such as Siemens and ABB, they could have the know-how to help in this regard. Nevertheless, it takes more than a motobike to win this one. Before this thinking for high speed train systems can kick in, people first have to learn that driving big SUVs, super heavy duty pick-ups and Corvettes is pure madness. Fuel efficient cars is the first step to do, and this can go together with highspeed trains, otherwise it will never work out.
    Gas cost has to go up to 6 dollars/gallon, and then such a project may have some chance of success. But not if people can still fuel up their cars for 25-30 dollars.

    From Switzerland

  7. MAG-Lev is the only way to go.....600 Billion over 20 years = 30 Billion a year.
    Really? Is that a whole Hell of a-lot? we'll probably get 1/3 of that back from the taxes collected from the jobs created ( yes i'm speculating on the number, but most politicians do the same! ).

    Gas is already on the rise again, speculators in Wall Street say it will hit $5 a gallon by Summer.
    Airline companies as well as other companies are raising prices on goods and services provided, therefore passing the cost to "US" TWICE!!

    People have to start deciding when enough is enough!!! We need to start investing in our future and start weening ourselves off of Petrolem-based energy and put more into "Green Energy". Think about the ability to use MAG-Lev to transport goods and people at 250+ mph without using any "Greenhouse Gases"!! Imagine not having to use your car or paying ridiculous fees for airlines to travel!

    Creating and Investing in future Technology is what will help drive "US" into the next Evolution of the planet Earth.

  8. ok, and how would you want to operate such trains? perhaps with an iron horse ? lol. If it's electric power driven, then it takes decades to build such a train system network. But like I said before, there's so much talking by politicians looking for votes and coming up with great ideas. Talking is one thing, but to make it happen, that's the bigger task.

    Greetings from Switzerland

  9. you can operate it with wind, solar and geo-thermal. Does that answer your question?
    Building it is a way to invest into the U.S. and a way to lower prices all around.
    Decades are nothing!!! "Rome wasn't built in a day"

  10. What about those of us in Las Vegas that want to get to Disney Land, an Angel's Game, or the beach. This is worthless. Do they expect us to rent a car when we get there. Forget it. Any train from Las Vegas, to Cali needs do at least get down to the Anaheim Convention Center to make it worth our time. Before you spend that kind of money building this train, you had better solve that problem first. You will not see me (or thousands of other families) buying any tickets to Victorville.