Waiting on the Fast Track

This year’s seemingly endless summer wasn’t long enough to satisfy every curiosity, with gamblers and investors, tourists and green-energy enthusiasts still waiting to hear whether a decade-old plan to connect Las Vegas with Southern California via a private rail system would wind up lucky after all.

International media outlets hyped a possible summertime announcement as to whether the U.S. government would make its first gamble on high-speed rail by loaning $5.5 billion to build the XpressWest train, formerly known as DesertXpress. The timeline was based on an average 19-month response on all requests for Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loans, used since 2002 to fund projects that enhance public safety, improve the environment and promote economic development.

Now Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Kevin Thompson says XpressWest’s loan application still isn’t complete some 23 months after it was submitted. Thompson declined to discuss details of the pending request, though he confirmed the largest loan the FRA has granted to date was roughly a tenth the size of what XpressWest is asking for.

Despite a steady flow of requests from the FRA for additional documentation aimed at safeguarding taxpayer dollars, Andrew Mack, chief operating officer of XpressWest, says they’re taking it all in stride. “Given the scale and significance of the XpressWest project,” he says, “we … have always expected it to take longer than an ‘average’ loan review.”

Not that the train’s crew has been sitting idly by waiting for the phone to ring. In June, the company ditched its old name. Gone was the word “Desert,” which conjured protests over the train’s destination of Victorville, Calif., some 70 miles from Los Angeles. In its place is “West,” which has evoked opportunity since the Gold Rush days. Only this time, entrepreneurs are hoping to lure the West Coast crowd east to seek their treasure.

“The name was changed to reflect a broader vision for interconnected rail service throughout the West,” Mack says, citing a Southwest rail network that’s planned to one day include Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. That effort received two more recent boosts. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board agreed to work with XpressWest in developing an extension of the train west from Victorville to Palmdale, where it could eventually tie in with existing rail that leads to Los Angeles or California’s proposed high-speed network from L.A. to San Francisco. And on Nov. 16, a judge rejected a request by Central Valley, Calif., agriculture groups to halt the first leg of the state’s bullet train, paving the way for construction on the $68 billion project to begin in July.

Still, Mack insists XpressWest’s success isn’t dependent on the Palmdale connection or California’s bullet train. He cited a controversial ridership study indicating that the Victorville route would divert roughly 25 percent of annual private auto traffic from Interstate 15. Visitors are expected to drive a couple hours from Los Angeles to Victorville, ditch their cars there and let their Las Vegas experience begin onboard XpressWest, reaching Sin City in roughly half the time during peak travel periods.

Somebody’s buying it: So far, XpressWest has pulled in $1.5 billion in private and commercial investments. Mack declined to offer any details as to what that investment pool looks like while the FRA is still considering the loan.

Once XpressWest’s loan application is complete, the FRA is required to issue a decision within 90 days. If the agency decides to pass along $5.5 billion, Mack says XpressWest would immediately begin hiring “thousands of workers” to do engineering, surveying, soil testing, marketing and procurement. Within six to eight months, the project would break ground. And within five years, the first passenger would board the first train.