Monday, March 26, 2012

DesertXpress Derailed?

This morning, Richard Velotta had an interesting column in Vegas Inc. on the current state of passenger rail in Southern Nevada. Bottom line: We still have none, and we can't wait forever for DesertXpress to start its engines.

In the past year, I’ve attended presentations by DesertXpress officials to get updates on progress.

Over the past several months, a handful of federal government agencies have approved routes and rights-of-way, but little information has emerged on the status of the project, and neither the company nor the Federal Railroad Administration returns phone calls. [...]

I also want to know, DesertXpress, if you’re still confident in the Las Vegas-Victorville transportation model after all the scorn you’ve endured in the past four years. Aren’t you tired of hearing people say, “Victorville?” in disbelief when you explain that you’re asking Southern Californians to drive there, park their cars and board a train to take them on what would be the easier leg of the journey to Las Vegas? Let’s not forget, either, that our California visitors would have no car once they arrived in Nevada and would have to rely on public transportation, taxis or a rental. Never mind that there’s virtually no upside to Las Vegans looking to go to Southern California, either.

I’d like to know if you’ve rethought the maglev technology since the commercially operating line in Shanghai is maintaining a more than 99 percent on-time efficiency rating after eight years in service. Isn’t it about time we stop calling maglev “unproven?”

I know, your suppliers are all friends and steel-wheel-on-rail guys, the same ones who dominate policy at the Federal Railroad Administration. There’s virtually no hope that this is going to change with that good ol’ boy network in place, despite President Barack Obama’s urging to get the fastest train in the world deployed in the United States. I don’t think he was talking about a 150 mph system that most don’t consider to be high-speed rail anymore.

Shortly after I started this blog in mid-2009, I wrote this piece expressing my frustration with the slow pace of progress then.

They're saying they're in talks with California High-Speed Rail about building a spur to connect Victorville to the California rail network stop in Palmdale, and maybe even allowing the DesertXpress to use the state rail to go all the way down to LA and Orange County. We'll see.

If something actually materializes out of these "talks", color me pleasantly surprised. But in the mean time, I just don't see very many people either driving all the way to Victorville to take a train to Vegas or riding up on a bus to Victorville and change from the bus to the train. Yes, that's really the interim plan.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm NOT opposed to rail. I just want to see it done right. The Anaheim to Las Vegas Maglev plan just seems to make more business sense, especially over the long term. But even if we want to go forward with conventional rail, put forward a workable plan! I don't like how DesertXpress claims "we may work something out with CA High-Speed Rail" or "we may one day talk with Arizona officials". Either put up or shut up! Come forward with a detailed plan to make DesertXpress work or don't come to us the taxpayers and expect a bailout when we can just go forward with Maglev and their real, sensible plan.

After federal funding was pulled from Maglev, I honestly thought it was dead. I figured Sig Rogich got DesertXpress all "juiced up", so we'd just have to find a way to make it work.

However after nearly three years of waiting for something, anything really, to actually start construction, it's starting to feel like deja vu and 2009 all over again. As Mr. Velotta so aptly noted, we've given Desert Xpress all this time to basically go nowhere fast.

So how much longer must we wait for some kind of comprehensive transportation solution? DesertXpress backers promised they could finish sooner than Maglev while providing safer and more reliable passenger rail service between Southern California and Southern Nevada. However with continued delays, those promises are sounding increasingly empty.

Now DesertXpress backers are promising that this time will be different, that this time they're closer than ever to securing federal loans to build it. But wait, didn't these same folks promise once upon a time that "this will be privately funded and operated!"? I guess that didn't last long. (And really, it never could, since projects like these need some kind of public funding to be viable.)

However, DesertXpress backers are still claiming people will want to ride a train to and from Victorville. And as it's always been, the key problem here is that Victorville is about 80 miles away from the major population centers in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. What had made the Maglev project so appealing, in addition to its very high speed and clean technology, is that it could be built through the Cajon Pass all the way to a proposed new train station in Anaheim, where travelers could either hop off and head to Disneyland and other top Orange County tourist attractions, or easily connect to trains going to Los Angeles and San Diego. For some reason, Victorville just doesn't carry the same kind of cache among the tourists and commuters looking for a real SoCal-to-Vegas train to ride. (DesertXpress officials claim they're still in talks with the California High Speed Rail Authority for connecting their line to the HSR line in Palmdale, but again it sounds like talks that are going nowhere fast.)

As we discussed yesterday, renewed concerns about high gas prices and climate change are sending more commuters away from cars and to mass transit alternatives. At this time, building a high speed rail line from the population rich Southern California to the tourism hub of Southern Nevada should be a "no brainer". However, this not-so-high-speed rail line that starts in a city 80 miles away from Southern California top population centers, business hubs, and tourist attractions really seems to be complicating matters. Can we really afford to keep going nowhere fast on DesertXpress? Either DesertXpress needs to shape up, or top Nevada elected officials (like Harry Reid) really need to rethink their support for this project.

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