In a letter to XpressWest Chairman Tony Marnell on June 28, then-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said his department was suspending further consideration of a $5.5 billion loan request for the Las Vegas-to-Victorville high-speed rail project. The decision, he wrote, came “after several years of engagement with no resolution to the threshold issues … and the significant uncertainties still surrounding the project.”
If you’re unclear on what, exactly, this means, don’t feel bad. Ensuing messages have been mixed, to say the least. Citing a letter from prominent Republicans on the U.S. House and Senate budget committees to the Government Accountability Office, conservative bloggers declared the Transportation Department move a victory in the battle against wasteful public subsidies. Local observers quickly pronounced XpressWest dead. Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Harry Reid, a proponent of the project, called a press conference to say it’s very much alive; President Obama, Reid insisted, would never give up on the only viable option to see his wish for high-speed rail in the U.S. fulfilled. And Marnell himself took to local editorial pages to put creditors and the public on notice: “The XpressWest project remains viable, and conversations continue with the federal government.”
Contrary to appearances, reactions to the news don’t fall along partisan political lines—at least not locally. The project has backers from both sides of the aisle and involves corporate investors seeking public money. These players understand that having another means to carry visitors to and from Las Vegas would be good for Southern Nevada’s economy. Some believe it would even be good for our soul, restoring pride to an area battered by the recession by making it home to a technological first in the nation.
Still, the Transportation Department’s apparent kibosh on XpressWest might not be such a bad thing … precisely because high-speed rail is such a good idea, and the U.S. can’t afford to get it wrong.
Let’s be honest: XpressWest has issues to work out, beyond the difficulty of sourcing equipment from U.S. manufacturers, which was a requirement for the loan. For one thing, it stops in Victorville. There are good reasons for this: The proposed route has 185 miles of unencumbered right-of-way along the Interstate 15 corridor and never has to get into the sticky (and expensive) business of acquiring right-of-way on the coastal side of Cajon Pass. Plus, it doesn’t have to overcome the engineering challenge of getting over the pass. But would-be L.A.-to-Las Vegas travelers can be forgiven for wondering what the point is of a rail trip that leaves you with 85 miles of heavy-traffic driving in a rented car.
The solution to this problem lies with our neighbor to the west. California’s proposed high-speed line from L.A. to San Francisco would include a Palmdale stop, which could potentially link to XPressWest at Victorville. The state has approved the start of construction, but its residents have a good case of sticker-shock from the latest cost estimates for that project: $68 billion. Governor Jerry Brown has accumulated some political capital by balancing the budget, but his state will need help from the strapped federal government to afford a project of that scale.
For long-term viability, XPressWest needs that California line. It needs not simply the possibility but the certainty that it would link to a meaningful Western rail network beyond Victorville. High-speed rail is hungry for a success story, and the California route—stitching together major population, intellectual, industrial and agricultural centers—is the best first place for the federal government and rail investors alike to place their bets.
Our own high-speed-rail dreams—dreams Las Vegans have fostered since Bill Briare was mayor in the 1980s—will make a whole lot more sense if the California route gets a head of steam.