The Clotted Artery of Interstate 15

The string of lights climbed up the Baker grade and disappeared into the velvety black sky. It was after 7 p.m. on a winter Sunday, and as I was zipping back toward Las Vegas from a California weekend, the residents of that blessed and benighted state were heading home. My wife and I were enjoying a heady mix of Springsteen bootlegs and word games with our 11-year-old, and I truly hope the folks coming the other way had their own simple joys to tide them over. Because, judging from the traffic jam, they were going to be on the road for a very long time.

On my weekend tour of the gas pumps of Southern California—a journey blessedly punctuated by stops at the beach—I saw the following number: $4.37. That was in Lake Elsinore. I missed out on the $4.79 vintage at the Shell station on Olympic Boulevard in L.A.

On first glance, what California prices beget from a Nevadan is this: HAHAHAHAHAHA! A more reflective take might be this: Oh, shit, we’re next. And on a higher level of discourse—that’s “interdependence,” for you Stephen Covey fans out there—the response would be this: If it costs ’em a fortune to get here, maybe they won’t come.

Historically, gas hikes don’t lead to Armageddon, merely to conservation—or rather, talk of conservation—which, for some, feels like Armageddon. But before conservation, or Armageddon, can actually take root, things seem always to return to normal: Some oil-state dictator successfully returns his nation to “stability,” the international community is once again able to look the other way, oil flows into global markets and energy traders stop bidding the prices up in pursuit of their retirement payday.

Then we all get back to laughing at electric cars and light-rail enthusiasts and the delusional dream of high-speed trains.

So, setting aside the rising price of gas, I will focus on something more precious than money: time. Californians, I think, would not stop coming to Las Vegas because of the price of a tankful, but they would stop coming if it takes twice-times-forever to get here and back. The solution currently on the table—the $6 billion DesertXpress high-speed line between Las Vegas and Victorville—would bust through the Interstate15 bottleneck that makes life miserable between Primm and Cajon Pass. That project could, with a little help from the Federal Railroad Administration, break ground by the end of this year. But the route would force travelers to drive to the High Desert before hopping on the train. And after a long weekend in Sin City, they’d have to hunt a Victorville parking lot for their car before starting the second leg of the journey home.

It’s a classic half-solution to a problem that deserves the full measure of our ingenuity. There are some logical reasons for the Victorville terminus—in particular the expense of right-of-way in the L.A. Basin. And maybe a half-solution is better than nothing.

Then again, it could discredit the whole idea of high-speed rail.

This much is certain: In the effort to ensure the life-giving flow of visitors from Southern California, we need a convenient, energy-efficient and marketable long-term answer. So far, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get it.

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