The Western High-Speed Rail Alliance’s Tom Skancke, who supports the DesertXpress project, testifies before the House Transportation Committee in Washington, D.C.
Just before Christmas 2009, Las Vegas transportation expert Tom Stone and Orange County, Calif., millionaire developer William Buck Johns met in the middle for lunch.
Their junction was in Victorville, Calif., at the Grumpy Golfer, a dimly lit bar overlooking the 18th green of a public golf course that’s served as a watering hole for weary Interstate 15 travelers and the “good ol’ boys” who ran this desert town for decades. Invited to dine that day were two of those good ol’ boys: Terry Caldwell, who was deemed Victorville’s mayor emeritus after 40 years in office, and six-term Councilman Mike Rothschild. Also on the guest list was a group of Chinese investors.
Victorville was born as a railroad outpost, and Stone and Johns were attempting to tap a bit of that lingering small-town charm to court “Team China.” The goal: to garner support for DesertXpress, a train that would run at speeds of up to 150 mph, connecting this Mojave Desert town of 117,000 with Las Vegas.
DesertXpress officials are mum on whether they succeeded in luring investors from China that day, or from one of the other five international teams they courted in as many weeks. The only public noise after their quiet Victorville meeting was the indignation of Councilwoman JoAnn Almond. Although she’d been at the golf course that morning to help organize the city’s Christmas parade, Almond wasn’t invited to the discussion of “destination Victorville.” Supporters of the project say that’s because, even after hearing their pitch—with its promise of skirting the I-15 bottleneck and its praise for the 185 miles of unencumbered right of way linking the high desert with Sin City—Almond continued to question the viability of their vision.
High-speed rail conjures images of grand terminals and sleek trains racing through the countryside. But that sexiness is born from a perceived necessity, with a large-scale push from government officials, environmentalists and enterprising entrepreneurs to shift our infrastructure priorities from highways to railways.
“America must, in order to be globally competitive, have a high-speed network,” says Tom Skancke, executive director of the Western High-Speed Rail Alliance, an organization trying to bring high-speed rail to the intermountain West. “We cannot build ourselves out of congestion on the air or on the ground.”
But despite $8 billion earmarked for high-speed rail in the 2009 stimulus bill, funds for critical infrastructure projects are in short supply. And the companies that control the existing infrastructure aren’t keen on sharing it. The United States has the world’s best freight system—and it’s not really in the financial interests of the major freight carriers to share track with passenger rail.
But plans are inching forward in the Southwest for a new passenger line between the Las Vegas Valley and Southern California—the largest market for Las Vegas’ tourism industry. And the leading contender for linking the two is DesertXpress.
Backed by Las Vegas heavyweights including Republican consultant Sig Rogich and developer Tony Marnell and politically supported by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., DesertXpress is designed to make the journey between Las Vegas and the edges of the L.A. region in 90 minutes. The high-speed train proposal has already completed its environmental impact statement and has received approval from the Federal Railroad Administration. In early 2011, DesertXpress applied for a loan with the Railroad Administration. Published reports from last fall put the loan request at $4.9 billion, but more recent reports suggest the request has risen to as high as $6.5 billion. If the loan is approved, construction of the project could begin by year’s end with anticipated completion by 2016. DesertXpress backers have estimated that the project would directly and indirectly spur more than 80,000 jobs between Clark County and San Bernardino County. Trains would run in 20-minute intervals during peak hours, or as frequently as every 12 minutes, if demand requires it. In the first full year of operation, DesertXpress supporters expect the train to carry 5 million people. Tickets are projected to cost $89 round trip.
DesertXpress declined repeated interview requests. A spokeswoman says the group does not want to talk while it’s awaiting word from the Railroad Administration about its loan application. The administration, in turn, refused to comment on its timetable for reaching a decision.
If you want to see what a different future for high-speed transit across the Mojave might look like, go to YouTube and run a search for the Shanghai maglev train—it runs from Shanghai’s airport to the edge of the city’s financial district. The 19-mile journey takes eight minutes. There are plenty of clips to choose from, and one feels a sense of awe watching the train accelerate, topping out at 268 mph.
The American Magline Group has been trying for years to build a magnetic levitation train that would run faster and farther than DesertXpress, and connect Las Vegas and Anaheim. The proposed maglev would climb up Cajon Pass—it’s unclear whether DesertXpress’ steel-rail technology could do so—and continue down into coastal Southern California.
The maglev technology propels a train through electric magnetism along a cushion of air. The lack of friction permits speeds the DesertXpress’ steel-rail technology could not match. The maglev is the line President Barack Obama has used in pushing high-speed rail here. It’s an inspirational vision—a “moon shot,” in the popular parlance—and the comparison with the Shanghai line is a kind of nationalist call for America to get off its ass lest it get beaten by a new economic rival. Whether the line being discussed is technologically or financially feasible—it would be the world’s longest maglev line, and it would require the purchase of prohibitively expensive right of way in the Los Angeles basin—is another question.
For years, magnetic levitation was the front-running technology for a high-speed link between here and Los Angeles. Nevada and California formed a high-speed rail commission in 1988, and in the following years commissioners toured the world exploring options for high-speed train systems. They saw the Japanese bullet train. They saw the French TGV, the German ICE. But eventually they gravitated toward maglev trains.
Neil Cummings, who runs the American Magline Group, got involved in the late ’90s, after a federal transportation bill earmarked money to study the viability of maglev. Las Vegas submitted an application, but money was awarded to further development of two potential lines back east. One was in Pittsburgh, connecting its airport to downtown, a hilly topography that would test maglev’s ability to handle complicated terrain. The other was a line to link downtown Baltimore with Union Station in Washington, D.C.
Nevertheless, maglev has never gotten past the status of bright idea in the U.S. Maglev supporters have had a hard time leveraging financing to match federal funds to further explore the technology’s viability. Most federal transportation dollars still go toward building new roads. High-speed rail is a tough enough sell; anything more exotic is scaring people off. Even with a momentary interest in new infrastructure following the stimulus bill in 2009, maglev still is going nowhere.
The Railroad Administration says it’s not playing favorites when it comes to high-speed rail technology. “We’re technology neutral,” administration spokesman Rob Kulat says. “The funds we give to the state, it’s really up to the states to decide how they use it. Any other project, if they want to have maglev, they can apply for it.”
Maglev supporters hold out hope that, with more study, states will place their bets on the more advanced technology. Cummings says the Shanghai line has been up for eight years and had needed only minimal maintenance, Cummings says. “They did it—they wanted the next-generation technology. It’s faster, and its life-cycle costs are much lower, so it lasts a lot longer.”
Maglev is 30 percent more energy-efficient than an electrified steel-wheel train, Cummings says. True, maglevs traveling at 300 mph require more juice than trains running at 180—but it’s going nearly twice as fast. And he says maglev has the ability to tackle the Cajon Pass, which marks the edge of the desert, 55 miles southwest of Barstow. To make the point, Cummings points to a brochure by a high-speed consortium backed by Siemens and ThyssenKrupp that suggest maglev trains can surmount 10 percent grade. (Depending on the path taken, estimates of the grade a train would need to ascend range from 2 to 7 percent.) Skancke, however, says a contact at train-builder Alstom claims high-speed rail of either type couldn’t efficiently navigate the pass, although freight trains do it every day: Freight trains zigzag their way up and down the pass on switchbacks; mimicking this path, with its lower grade, would slow high-speed lines and undermine their primary selling point. In other words, if you slow down high-speed rail, it’s not high-speed rail anymore.
Maglev is more than the stuff of sci-fi dreams. “This is a standard technology,” says Pushkin Kachroo, who runs UNLV’s Transportation Research Center. “I can build it in my lab.” Still, while there appear to be many maglev proposals worldwide over the last several years, few besides Shanghai are in operation. There is a short line in Daejeon, South Korea, and one near Nagoya, in central Japan. That’s it. The expense of maglev—magnified by a fully built-out system potentially spanning hundreds of miles—is proving too daunting to overcome. As a consequence, maglev still can’t quite shake the sci-fi label—a vision from the future that’s too risky to fully commit to. The Government Accountability Office in 2009 estimated maglev would cost $12.1 billion, but the same report estimated DesertXpress would cost $3.5 billion; the latter’s project cost is now $6.5 billion, so it’s possible that maglev’s costs would be higher as well.
But any project, no matter the cost, is dependent on completing a federally required environmental impact statement, which the backers of the Las Vegas-Anaheim maglev line haven’t been able to do. The Railroad Administration made $45 million available for the environmental review, provided American Magline Group and the maglev commission could match the funds at 20 percent; when they couldn’t, that money was diverted to a road project near McCarran International Airport. (According to the Nevada Department of Transportation, AMG could still pull together matching funds and attempt to reacquire the money.)
The funds were diverted at the behest of Reid. The Senate majority leader has supported maglev in years past, but in 2009 he switched to DesertXpress. Some point to campaign contributions from Rogich as a motivating factor; Skancke suggests a more pragmatic possibility. “DesertXpress is 10 years ahead. He just wants rail built, because it’s the future of Southern Nevada’s success.” (Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman says much the same, that Reid switched allegiance because it “showed the most promise at delivering a high-speed rail system for Nevadans.”) Skancke also points to private investment by Marnell to help fund preliminary design and environmental review demands. “Marnell has assumed all the liability, all the risk up front,” he says. “The other project wanted the federal government to assume risk up front.”
DesertXpress supporters argue, simply, that their proposal is more cost-effective and more reliable. The Chinese are now spending $184 billion on high-speed rail with steel-wheel technology similar to the DesertXpress, Skancke says. Manufacturer Alstom, meanwhile, spent billions designing a super-fast conventional high-speed train for Spain. “If maglev was the future, they’d be doing it,” Skancke says. “Maglev is not the future.” Clearly, little love is lost between proponents of steel wheels versus maglev. “Their argument is 30 years old. They don’t have a line or a project. They have nothing. If they were going to do it, why didn’t they do it?”
Unless you live in Victorville, there is one problem with DesertXpress: It goes to Victorville. If you’re headed for, say, Santa Monica, plan on an additional 101-mile trip by rental car, almost two hours on a good traffic day—and there aren’t many of those in Southern California. If the little old lady from Pasadena decides on a weekend rail getaway to Vegas, she’ll have to drive 76 miles to get to the train. Outside of rental-car operations, would-be parking-lot capitalists and high-desert budget motel franchisees, nobody thinks the Victorville terminus is ideal.
But Victorville does have several key factors working in its favor—namely cheap, undeveloped right of way along the Interstate 15 corridor. Even if DesertXpress managed to conquer Cajon Pass, company officials have said the costs associated with establishing an acceptable alignment in the urban setting south of that mountainous terrain would have priced DesertXpress right out of existence.
“With no available right of way in the greater L.A. Basin, the freeways already built out, and dozens, if not hundreds, of communities that likely would oppose the placement of an elevated high-speed rail system within or adjacent to them, the time and cost required to make such a line a reality are incalculable,” DesertXpress officials told WizardOfVegas.com in 2010. Rather than take on that Sisyphean task, the team opted to face the raised eyebrows, snarky bloggers and outright ridicule its western terminus inevitably attracts.
Meanwhile, project supporters insist that one day—someday—passengers will ride the rails all the way to Los Angeles. DesertXpress officials eventually want to extend their dedicated rail line some 50 miles west to Palmdale. That city is slated to be a stop on California’s long-awaited bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with plans for a 27-minute ride from Palmdale to the heart of L.A.
The future of that project looked bright in November 2008, when 52.7 percent of California voters authorized nearly $20 billion for what was then promoted as a $45 billion train. But last Nov. 1, the California High-Speed Rail Authority released a new business plan estimating that the project would cost $98 billion, take 20 years to complete and isn’t likely to receive private funding as hoped. “California blue-skied that project to death,” says Phyllis Wilkins, chairwoman of the U.S. Maglev Coalition, who calls the estimate of 100 million riders on the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco route “unrealistic.”
The new study triggered widespread backlash from Republican legislators. “The new number is greater than California’s entire annual state budget,” George Runner, a former senator representing Victorville and a member of the state Board of Equalization, said in a statement. “To fund the entire project today, every Californian, including men, women and children, would need to write a check for more than $2,500.” Sen. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican farmer from Richvale, immediately announced plans to introduce legislation putting the “boondoggle” back on the ballot, to see if voters still support the project now that it’s doubled in cost.
Ballooning price tags are familiar in the world of high-speed trains. In May 2007, Tom Stone, who was president of DesertXpress at the time, said his project would cost $3.5 billion and would be funded entirely with private dollars. Contrast that with today’s estimate of more than $6 billion, with a federal loan covering most of the tab.
In January, the Legislature-appointed California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group released a scathing report on the L.A.-San Francisco train, calling it an “immense financial risk” for California. A week later, the rail authority’s CEO and board chairman both stepped down. Gov. Jerry Brown continues to speak in support of the project, insisting his team will revamp the business plan and make it happen.
But with the L.A. connection looking as though it might fade off into the smoggy sunset, here’s the $6 billion question: Can DesertXpress survive if it really is just a train from Victorville to Vegas?
“I don’t foresee them having ridership issues,” Victorville Mayor Ryan McEachron says. While he acknowledges not everyone would get off Interstate 15 in his city and jump on the train, McEachron says it’s important to give travelers options—so why not give them one that would allow them to cruise into Las Vegas with drinks in their hands? “People are driving to Vegas and they’re losing thousands of dollars gambling. I don’t see why they wouldn’t pay to get on the train.”
Curiosity will surely lure millions of first-time riders, and the threat of holiday weekend traffic may occasionally bring them back. However, many Southern California residents Vegas Seven spoke with—from Los Angeles to San Diego, the Inland Empire and even Victorville itself—say they can’t see making a habit of getting to Las Vegas by train.
“Well, personally, we prefer to drive so we have the convenience to come and go as we please,” said Staci Oertle, a 37-year-old from Corona, Calif., who frequents Las Vegas with her husband and two sons.
When event promoter Lindi Williams is deciding how to get eager bachelorettes and birthday girls to Vegas from her hometown of Long Beach, she considers three things: cost, travel time and whether she’ll be able to bring everything she needs, since she’s often lugging alcohol, party favors and such.
Driving is the cheapest option, and Williams can bring everything she can cram into her car. But it also takes the longest—anywhere from four to six hours. Flying is the fastest option, but also the priciest—especially if she’s going with more than two people or has to pay luggage fees. As for DesertXpress, the $89 round-trip ticket would cost roughly the same as two tanks of gas—and, so far, there are no plans to charge for parking in Victorville. However, the tickets would only cover Williams’ fare rather than a car full of partygoers, would still require a 100-mile drive to Victorville and would carry the potential for limiting her luggage. (Plus, once she gets to Las Vegas, she’ll have to rent a car if she wants to explore beyond the Strip.) “If I have to make it to Victorville anyway,” she says, “I’d rather pay less and drive myself with a group of friends chipping in for gas.”
Meanwhile, critics on the Nevada side wonder who is going to take a train to Vegas from Victorville. But Skancke says travelers will welcome the opportunity to bypass the Yermo Agricultural Inspection Station where, on a Sunday afternoon, 40,000 cars heading back to California are caught in a choke point. “I’m going to pay that [train] ticket, and I’m three hours ahead,” he says. Of course, when he gets off the train, he’s in Victorville.
Clearly some think DesertXpress will work: The cities of Ontario and Barstow have both signed resolutions opposing the project. Ontario is concerned it will see a serious drop in traffic at its international airport, while Barstow is worried its gas stations, restaurants and hotels will suffer if fewer people are driving through.
“Barstow is going to get something out of this,” McEachron insists. Although it’s always labeled as Victorville, the California terminal for DesertXpress is actually expected to be roughly halfway between Barstow and Victorville. So, though there won’t be a dedicated Barstow stop (or any other stops) between Las Vegas and the end of the line, McEachron suspects the line’s economic benefits will reach Victorville’s desert neighbor.
For Victorville-area supporters of DesertXPress, the train is less about commuter convenience or clean air than about real estate development, civic pride and jobs. “It would put us on the map as being the first high-speed rail project in the nation,” McEachron says. “Everybody will want to come to Victorville.”
That would be welcome news for this desert city that’s teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, with investigations into Victorville finances under way by the San Bernardino County Grand Jury, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI. Among issues under the microscope is Victorville’s predilection over the years for gambling big with taxpayer dollars on projects that may never come to fruition, with some $200 million lost on two failed power-plant projects—one of which was envisioned by the developer William Buck Johns.
Along with being a self-proclaimed “partner” in the Las Vegas train, Johns owns one of three companies with exclusive rights to plan and control some 10,000 acres north of Victorville for the next 20 to 30 years. The city of Victorville granted the rights in 2007 to Johns’ Inland Group, DesertXpress and Transit Real Estate Development, or TRED, a land company headed by DesertXpress CEO Andrew Mack. The partnership aims to develop an upscale, master-planned community complete with a golf course surrounding the DesertXpress terminal.
That plan continues to draw criticism from area property owners and landed Victorville in a lawsuit that lasted more than a year, after the investment firm Niles complained that the city was making grand plans on land it didn’t own. Victorville hoped to purchase thousands of acres in the area owned by the Bureau of Land Management through a controversial land swap, aimed at ending a 12-year dispute between the city of Santa Clarita and the mining company Cemex. U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have both introduced legislation that would persuade Cemex to abandon mining rights near Santa Clarita, where residents have protested the resulting pollution and traffic, in exchange for land north of Victorville. However, the company wouldn’t be able to mine that land, and instead would sell it to Victorville—which then plans to sell it to TRED, which would use it for Mack’s master-planned enclave around the DesertXpress terminal. But that legislation has died twice already, with its latest reincarnation sitting in the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources since April.
San Bernardino County has also raised red flags over the planned development north of Victorville, since the county landfill serving the entire Victor Valley is also on the edge of the area in question. Victorville has been trying for some time to shut down the dump and relocate it—or launch a waste-to-energy plant with Inland Energy’s help—but the county maintains plans to instead expand the landfill’s capacity in coming years.
Still, in September 2010 San Bernardino County’s land-use board agreed to add some 4,525 acres—including the potential terminus for DesertXpress—to Victorville’s sphere of influence. Under California law, that means Victorville can influence planning and land-use decisions in this area even though it’s outside city limits. The city has indicated an interest in one day annexing the territory to capture property and sales tax on any new development.
So, while the sweetheart-deal dreams of DesertXpress supporters such as Johns and Mack haven’t yet been fulfilled, Victorville is preparing the ground just in case the train does roll into town.
Don’t let Las Vegas’ economic slowdown fool you. Eventually the city will hit critical points of congestion. Already, more than 10 million visitors come from Southern California to Las Vegas each year. Each day, more than 80,000 vehicles cross state line on Interstate 15 traveling to and from Nevada. McCarran, meanwhile, is still well shy of its capacity of 53 million passengers, but it will eventually hit that ceiling. There are plans to build an additional airport at Ivanpah, but high-speed rail could go far to ease the burden.
Both DesertXpress and the maglev project promise a wealth of jobs in Clark County—13,000 jobs for maglev, and some 17,500 primary (and another 16,500 indirect) jobs for DesertXpress. There’s also a chance to energize underutilized urban spaces in the center of the city. Four station sites are being considered for DesertXpress: a “southern” station across the freeway from Mandalay Bay; two central stations near the Rio, and a station downtown. (There’s no indication that more than one of these stations would be built, though it’s not out of the question either.) Urban proponents would certainly lobby for a downtown station, which could be built reasonably close to the area’s existing transit hub.
True, a downtown stop without a corresponding stop near the Strip probably defeats much of the purpose of building a train in the first place. But any station can help create a powerful symbol of the viability of a denser, pedestrian central city. Transit-oriented development could easily be sited near a downtown station, for instance, or near the Rio stations.
The Railroad Administration has spent billions on modest upgrades across the country to relieve bottlenecks and allow Amtrak trains to travel a little faster. But it’s not really moving us toward super-fast trains. Opportunities for high-speed rail are still there, Skancke says, but the $8 billion set aside from the stimulus package may be setting up some false expectations. Put bluntly, federal funding for high-speed rail is only a symbolic gesture. It’s not enough to build much of anything.
Whether the stimulus funds can be a catalyst for additional investment remains to be seen. The talk this election season figures to be more about reducing federal expenditures than expanding investment. But gas prices are once again soaring—a development that may, as during the last spike in 2008, energize discussions of rail travel.
“It’s expensive if we don’t do it,” Skancke says. “We need a cultural shift in how we move people. It will take time. We have to provide the driving public another opportunity.” And we’ll need to be patient as that opportunity matures. “We’ve kind of forgotten that the interstate highway took 50 years to build,” he says. “A national [high-speed] rail system will also take 30-50 years to build.”
Much is riding on the choice between the dazzling but distant maglev dream and the more conventional technology behind DesertXpress (Victorville route and all). This one lonely line in the Mojave Desert could launch the transformation of the nation’s infrastructure if it is a model of success, signaling the beginning of a coordinated effort to build a system. Or, if it fails—if the route or the cost or the ride itself proves unappealing—it could set high-speed rail back before it’s even gotten rolling. The future of high-speed rail is not just about getting a line built; it’s about getting the right line built, in the right place, in the right way. It’s about setting an example for the nation, one that says: This works.
DesertXpress just may get its shot at being that example, skeptics be damned. Governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have already said “no thank you” to billions in stimulus funds for potential high-speed rail projects in their states. High-speed rail in California is reeling in the face of runaway cost estimates. The Midwest is upgrading tracks to enable a high-speed rail network with Chicago as its hub, but those trains are only projected to go 110 mph. That leaves DesertXpress carrying the banner for true high-speed rail in America. If the Railroad Administration approves the $4.9 billion loan, the project could soon move from the drawing board to the desert soil. That’s a big “if,” but the Obama Administration has made no secret of its desire to see high-speed rail in the nation’s near future—and its last, best chance runs through the badlands of the Mojave.
“This is the only viable project nationwide,” McEachron says. “There’s just too much political pressure right now not to do it.”