Friday, Jan. 15, 2010 | 3 a.m.
One of the assets of a great tourism destination is its transportation infrastructure, and 2009 had its fair share of news about three rail proposals that not only would get tourists to Las Vegas, but move them around the city once they are here.
I called representatives from DesertXpress, American Magline Group and Las Vegas Monorail this week to get updates on each of their transportation systems.
One of the top tourism stories for Southern Nevada this year is going to be the start up and progress of DesertXpress, the high-speed train traveling at 150 mph that would connect Southern Nevada with Southern California.
When I last talked with Tom Stone, president of DesertXpress, it was hoped that all the environmental paperwork would be completed by the end of 2009 and that construction would begin on the train in the late first quarter or early second quarter.
The public comment period on the company’s environmental documents ended in May and various government agencies have been working on firming up the final route since the company had several alternatives on various parts between Las Vegas and Victorville, Calif.
Several “avoidance alternatives” were generated so that the train route could be kept away from culturally significant landmarks and environmentally sensitive sites. The train also is being routed away from the site of a planned solar energy station.
Because of the necessity of engineering the alternative routes, the start date for construction is slightly behind the initial plan.
But Stone has no doubt that 2010 will be “the year of the train,” even though he’s reluctant to predict a groundbreaking date just yet.
The other big news for DesertXpress is that representatives of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, seeing the opportunity of connecting the Las Vegas-Victorville link with that state’s planned rail system, are seeking stimulus money for links for Palmdale, Calif., Los Angeles and Anaheim. The logical next step would be to work on a track between Victorville and Palmdale, a process that could take years since it would require an environmental assessment.
But because the California group is pressing ahead on the Palmdale link, there’s optimism that there would be a coordinated effort to speed up a Victorville-Palmdale route.
Stone hopes work could progress so that construction could be under way by the time the Las Vegas-Victorville system opens in 2012.
Although the DesertXpress is on the verge of breaking ground, the same can’t be said of the magnetic levitation train project proposed by the American Magline Group on behalf of the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission.
Neil Cummings, who has been working for years to get the maglev project on track, was excited about his chances late last summer when it appeared his company was on the verge of getting started with some of the environmental approvals and engineering needed to build the first leg from Las Vegas to Primm.
But since July, there’s been a disconnect that has left the maglev waiting at the station.
Last July, the Federal Railroad Administration approved the Nevada Transportation Department’s scope of work for the use of $45 million authorized by the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users legislation. Cummings said required matching funds have been committed by American Magline Group and the money would be used to obtain environmental approvals, raise construction spending and begin work on the Las Vegas-Primm segment.
The state Transportation Department is awaiting the issuance of a contract by the Railroad Administration, and in August Administrator Joseph Szabo wrote a letter to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, a key member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, indicating that the contract would be issued “very soon.”
The state and the Super Speed Train Commission then applied for stimulus money to complete the full corridor, from Las Vegas to Anaheim.
The indication that the contract seemed close to completion prompted the Nevada governor’s office to issue a news release in September announcing that the maglev was on its way.
But that was in September. The Transportation Department and Cummings haven’t heard anything from the Railroad Administration since.
“I’ve never been so frustrated in my life,” Cummings said. “There’s been no explanation of a hang-up, so I don’t know where it’s at.”
It seems that the state’s congressional delegation should be getting involved to investigate the delay.
Although Sen. Harry Reid decided in late spring that the DesertXpress had the greatest chance for completion, I’m confident he would do what’s best for the local economy and find out what’s happening with the contract. Reid moved quickly last week when US Airways pilots put out an appeal for support in efforts to prevent the airline from closing its pilot base in Las Vegas.
Reid asked for a meeting with US Airways CEO Douglas Parker to get assurances that every alternative had been explored before the airline further reduced its Las Vegas schedule. The maglev issue is just as crucial to the city’s transportation needs and getting some answers on that contract is important.
The other train infrastructure important to Las Vegas tourism is the much-maligned Las Vegas Monorail.
The only good news about the monorail is that it makes enough money to pay for all its operational expenses. But the bad news is that it can’t pay the debts on the money borrowed to build the 3.9-mile system. That point was driven home Jan. 13 when the monorail company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to reorganize its finances.
The monorail will continue to operate, but things have gone from bleak to dismal.
The monorail is coming off a busy few days during the Consumer Electronics Show. Unfortunately, conventions with attendance of more than 100,000 don’t come around often enough to give the monorail the ridership boosts it needs to pay all its bills.
Although critics of the monorail continue to circle like vultures, the operators of the system maintain its operation is a benefit to the community — it takes cars off the roads that contribute to poor air quality and traffic congestion.
Some critics are calling for the monorail to be dismantled. There’s an untapped fund available to remove the pillars and tracks if the decision is ever reached to shut it down. Now that the company is bankrupt, I expect the voices to grow even louder to close the doors, even though taxpayers aren’t on the hook for the monorail’s horrible financial performance.
Monorail spokeswoman Ingrid Reisman said the focus of the monorail is to operate the system as efficiently and as effectively as it can. That doesn’t include any kind of plan to extend the monorail to McCarran International Airport, which, most critics agree, would make the system far more functional and possibly build enough ridership to make the debt payments.
But for now, survival is the objective, not growth, and construction isn’t in the cards. That’s unfortunate, since I have long maintained the reason the Las Vegas Monorail isn’t successful is because it’s a transportation system that isn’t finished yet. The airport link is the crucial piece that isn’t in place.
Many people who are unfamiliar with the monorail’s history don’t know how difficult it was to get the system to where it is today. Robert Broadbent, who headed the company after a career as the director of the Clark County Aviation Department, tried to put a system in place that would have addressed most of the criticisms the monorail gets today.
People complain the monorail route is along the back side of the properties on the east side of the Strip; Broadbent was hoping to route it down the center of the Strip, but met resistance from casino companies. Critics also complain the monorail doesn’t go to the airport or downtown; Broadbent wanted the train to go to both places but didn’t have the financial support to pull it off.
Compromise molded the monorail route to what it is today. Now, Las Vegas is living with that compromise.
Someday, if and when the monorail is ever finished, it may be more functional than it is today. But as long as the economy is where it is and the system’s ridership remains low, we have an incomplete, imperfect system with no date for when it would be improved.
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]