Las Vegas Sun

November 24, 2017

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Rail alliance names first routes, and LV-Reno ignored

When Jacob Snow, the general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, shared the outline of a new group that calls itself the Western High-Speed Rail Alliance, many, including me, got pretty excited about the prospects, even though I figured the end result probably wouldn’t be something I’d see in my lifetime.

Back in September, Snow and Las Vegas-based consultant Tom Skancke, who coordinates transportation initiatives for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, explained that the new alliance includes land-use planners from Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.

The idea, in a nutshell, is that planners in each state can best negotiate rail routes within their cities and have the expertise to find funding to develop high-speed rail between those cities. The current participants in the alliance are the local RTC, the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County in Reno, the Maricopa Council of Governments in Phoenix, the Utah Transit Authority in Salt Lake City and the Denver Council of Governments. The organizations also have made overtures to the Mid-Region Council of Governments in Albuquerque, but it has not signed on to the alliance yet.

They also have made contact with planning organizations in Tucson and Boise as potential future members.

Right now, the alliance is working toward turning itself into a legal non-profit organization. It also will move toward expanding membership to include prospective suppliers and service providers that could be a part of the effort to build high-speed rail in the Southwest.

Recently, Skancke made the first public presentation about the alliance, speaking to a lunch meeting of the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

At that session, Skancke outlined the first five routes the alliance will focus on: between Los Angeles and Phoenix; between Las Vegas and Phoenix; between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City; between Salt Lake City and Denver; and between Salt Lake City and Reno.

I have to admit that it was a little disappointing to find that a Las Vegas-Reno route isn’t on the early priority list. But it’s also reality – the Reno market isn’t very big and it makes much more sense to focus on bigger cities of the Southwest. While it would be great to contemplate government workers based in Carson City zipping to and from the state’s leading population center on a train, or college students at Nevada or UNLV making a quick trip home, there simply isn’t a big enough market to warrant the immediate investment.

Los Angeles-Phoenix links the two biggest major metropolitan areas in the Southwest, and the route is relatively straight and free of geographical barriers like mountains.

Las Vegas-Phoenix could be paired with efforts to develop an interstate highway between the cities. Spanning the Colorado River somewhere could present an engineering challenge.

Las Vegas-Salt Lake City is a natural and Amtrak found a market from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City via Las Vegas to have appeal for many years. A fast rail trip likely would have even greater appeal.

Denver-Salt Lake City would join two big intermountain West players but would be filled with geographical barriers. High-speed trains, whether they’re traditional tracks or maglevs, need straight routes or moderate curves. Tunneling through the Rockies would make that link an expensive proposition.

Salt Lake City-Reno follows a traditional Amtrak route that still operates and likely would be only the first link in an eventual push to the West Coast and San Francisco.

The alliance’s first map doesn’t include Los Angeles-Las Vegas because current efforts to develop that route already are in place. And for those of you who think high-speed rail to Southern California is a dream that never will be realized, I’ve been assured that we’ll start seeing construction next year.

The alliance still hasn’t determined what kind of technology would be used for the trains, traditional steel wheel on rails, maglev or possibly some other plan. We’ve heard the pro and con arguments for traditional rail and maglev in Las Vegas with the DesertXpress and American Magline Group proposals that have been aired so I won’t rehash that here.

But rest assured that there will be a spirited debate between alliance members when the time comes to have that discussion.

“Right now, were trying to provide a mechanism for multistate and regional authorities to conduct studies and plan projects,” Skancke told the North Las Vegas Chamber group. “We’re not going to talk about technologies until we do some of the studies.”

It’s still years — probably decades — away from the time when Las Vegans can jump on a train to go to a Phoenix Suns game or to hit the slopes of ski resorts in Utah or Colorado within a couple of hours.

But the vision has to start somewhere and for the Western High-Speed Rail Alliance, the dream has begun.

Selling rooms online

By early next year, tourists will be able to go to the LVCVA’s Web site to pick out a hotel room in Southern Nevada and glide seamlessly to the property’s own site to close the deal.

The LVCVA board of directors recently approved spending $333,000 to enhance its consumer Web site, VisitLasVegas.com, to steer customers to a hotel’s booking engine.

Full disclosure: In Business Las Vegas is owned by the Greenspun family, which also owns VEGAS.com, which books and sells Las Vegas hotel rooms online.

The LVCVA will pay for the site enhancement and $276,000 a year to JackRabbit Systems to maintain the site from funds generated by room taxes.

Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president of operations for the LVCVA, said executives studied three different sales models — wholesale, commission and “scraping,” the model they finally decided upon.

Under a wholesale model, a company purchases rooms from a hotel at a bulk rate and then resells them at whatever the market will bear. The commission model enables a company to collect a commission from the hotel for any room sales they make.

Under the scraping model, a company redirects the customer after providing all the information requested, normally for a fee. But under the LVCVA’s plan, resorts won’t have to pay a fee or commission. Like it has in the past, the LVCVA site will offer all the information a customer needs before making a decision on a transaction and once that decision is made, the customer is linked to the hotel’s site.

Resorts are happy about the deal because they won’t have to pay any commissions to a third party for rooms booked through the site.

Panama City postscript

In the hours leading up to Southwest Airlines’ announcement that it would begin service to Panama City, Fla., next year, a group of journalists attending the airline’s media day were awaiting a shuttle bus to take us to Southwest headquarters on a rainy day in Dallas.

I decided to engage my colleagues in a round of “Where will Southwest go next?” an exercise that can be frustrating because we all think we know better than the airline where they would have great success and we’re almost always wrong about their decisions.

Most of the writers — including me — thought that the pattern of announcing big cities and going head to head with major competition would be repeated, so Atlanta was a heavy favorite.

After all, Southwest long ago departed from its strategy of finding alternative airports near big cities: Manchester, N.H. and Providence, R.I. instead of Boston; Midway Airport instead of Chicago’s O’Hare International; Fort Lauderdale, Fla., instead of Miami, etc.

The airline’s most recent announcements were for Denver, Minneapolis, New York LaGuardia, Boston Logan and Milwaukee, where flights began last week. So why not Atlanta, the home of aviation giant Delta Air Lines and the nation’s busiest airport?

One writer chimed in with an old favorite, Colorado Springs, Colo., while another suggested Honolulu — a destination that is truly as southwest as you can go in the United States. He reasoned that Southwest’s Boeing 737-700 jets have the range to make that flight from the West Coast — Aloha Airlines had done it from Oakland and Orange County for awhile.

Trust me, no one suggested Panama City.

When Southwest CEO Gary Kelly announced the new city, most of us had to look at a map to see where it is. Kelly assured us that it is one of the most underserved tourist destinations in the country and if you see where it is — the state’s northwestern panhandle — you can see why. It’s far from Orlando, Tampa and even Jacksonville, another Southwest city.

The other big appeal is that Southwest will be the launch airline for a brand new airport, Panama City-Bay County International Airport.

Richard N. Velotta covers tourism, technology and small business for In Business Las Vegas and its sister publication, the Las Vegas Sun. He can be reached at 259-4061 or at [email protected]

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