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December 5, 2019

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Panelist: Region ignored too long on transportation issues

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 »

Scott Smith, the mayor of Mesa, Ariz., recalled the day when he and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper first saw the U.S. Department of Transportation’s map showing preferred high-speed rail corridors in the United States.

The Northeast corridor was outlined and the planned California high-speed rail system was noted. There were lines in and out of Chicago, Florida, Texas and Georgia. But there was a big gap in the Rocky Mountains and the desert Southwest, where no corridors were shown.

“We looked at the map and we were stunned,” Smith said. “Pardon me for saying this, but we were pissed off. Not only did they forget about us, they completely disrespected us.”

And that’s why Smith, who recently was elected by fellow mayors from across the country to serve on the advisory board of the United States Conference of Mayors, decided that the Maricopa Association of Governments needed to be a part of the Western High-Speed Rail Alliance.

The alliance on Thursday wrapped up the second day of a three-day rail conference that has brought nearly 200 transportation experts to the Vdara. Utah Sen. Bob Bennett is scheduled to wrap up the event with a closing keynote address at lunch on Friday.

Other western transportation organizations felt the same way, leading the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the Utah Transit Authority, the Regional Transportation Authority of Washoe County and the Regional Transportation Authority of Clark County to work together to get the West noticed by the Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration.

Smith said rail corridors aren’t the only transportation elements that have been ignored by the federal government.

He cited interstate highway transportation and the fact that Phoenix and Las Vegas are the largest major cities in the country not linked by an interstate highway, a matter local transportation experts are hoping to change with a proposal for Interstate 11 from Phoenix north through Las Vegas to Reno and beyond.

“Our region has been ignored for far too long,” Smith said. “We have to go kicking and screaming and kicking down the door.”

Part of the process, he said, involves educating citizens about the disparity and explaining that high-speed rail is not a people mover but an “economic driver that happens to move people.”

“We have to be loud; we have to be there; we have to be obnoxious, but we have to be noticed,” Smith said.

Smith was joined by representatives from Utah, Colorado and Nevada on a panel about the vision of the Western High-Speed Rail Alliance and what it can do to get funding for western projects.

Jennifer Schaufele, executive director of the Denver Regional Council of Governments, said the alliance needs to emphasize that most of the growth in the last decade and what is forecast in the years ahead includes Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah, with growth occurring three times faster than the rest of the United States.

But the geography of the area also makes for funding challenges, because high-speed rail needs straight or gently curving routes, which are hard to come by in the Rocky Mountains unless expensive tunneling is used.

John Inglish, general manager of the Utah Transit Authority, said voters twice approved sales tax increases in his state to pay for light rail and commuter lines in Salt Lake City, and the federal government should look at that local commitment when distributing funds for high-speed rail.

When the Utah projects are completed, 90 percent of the population along the Wasatch Front will be within a mile of major transit stop, Inglish said.

Michael Moreno of the Washoe County RTC said high-speed rail is critical to reinvigorating tourism in Nevada and with the state’s sustainability efforts.

He also noted that Northern Nevada, Salt Lake City and Denver are considering bids for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games and any of those sites would be well-served by high-speed rail.

But panelists said one of the most compelling reasons why federal authorities should pay more attention to alliance states is that Las Vegas will be on the north end of what may be the first true high-speed rail project in the country with the DesertXpress.

Tom Stone, president of DesertXpress Enterprises, debuted his company’s newest video explaining the project and how it would set the stage for high-speed rail in the United States.

“Once we get this system up and operating, people in this country are going to clamor for high-speed rail around the country,” Stone said. “They don’t know what it’s about, but they will, and it will be a great boon to everything that you are trying to do.”

Stone also recommended that system developers do as much as possible to get their environmental permitting completed quickly.

“Focus your efforts upon route planning and identification of your additional segments and then get the EIS (environmental impact statement) process done for that segment,” Stone said. “That way, you will move to the top of the list for federal funding.”

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