Proposals For Vegas-SoCal Passenger Rail Now At 5
It was rather appropriate that the Las Vegas Review-Journal chose today to run their long and very informative article on the various passenger rail proposals to link Southern Nevada and Southern California. The article mentions the five different train proposals, but really focuses on the DesertXpress project, which would provide 150mph high speed train service and the maglev project, which is reputed to be able to provide 310mph speeds.
Why was the article appropriate? Because today saw netroots activists from across America – the very people who will need to be engaged in the battle for high speed rail – leaving Las Vegas and coming to see first-hand the benefits of connecting Vegas to LA with a high speed train.
A lot of Southern Californians were at Netroots Nation this weekend, and today I heard many of them complaining about the prospect of a long, traffic-choked drive back home on Interstate 15. (Some are in that jam right now.) Every single one of them said they wish a high speed train existed, and most said they thought a station at Victorville would be workable as an interim measure, with an eventual link to LA via Palmdale as being something they’d be interested in using.
So it was very useful to have the LVRJ provide this very good discussion on the status of the proposals. They offered a useful map of the 5 proposals, which are:
The focus of the article was on the ongoing “debate” between DesertXpress and maglev. My opinion has been very consistent on this, that DesertXpress is likely to move forward and that maglev is not ready for prime time. (Note that Californians For High Speed Rail hasn’t developed a policy yet on the Vegas-SoCal corridor, but will later this year.) That’s the same conclusion Senator Harry Reid reached when he shifted his support away from maglev and toward DesertXpress last year.
One person quoted in the article, Anthony Perl of the Post Carbon Institute, believes this “debate” causes more problems than it solves:
“They’re not going to do anything other than hold back progress by holding these types of debates,” said Perl, who has studied high-speed rail proposals and systems for 25 years.
Perl can’t envision these two trains vying for the same money source because he believes the magnetic levitation project is a fantasy.
“They’re the unicorn of the transportation world,” Perl said. “People are always imagining seeing them in the mist, but as you approach them they fade away.”
It would be great if maglev were a workable technology, but as the article explained, Shanghai’s experience indicates it’s got a ways to go before it can be a substitute for steel-wheel bullet trains.
The article, which really has to be read to be fully appreciated, also discussed the “debate” over destinations. DesertXpress’s plan to stop at Victorville – for now – generates a lot of claims that it’s an inferior plan because it wouldn’t go all the way into the LA basin in the first phase. Yet the maglev project would itself be built in steps, with only the segment from Vegas to the indefinitely delayed Ivanpah Valley Airport near the state line being built in its first phase.
Here’s what the LVRJ article had to say about Victorville:
Opponents of the DesertXpress scoff at the Victorville destination, a point chosen in large part because of the high-speed steel-wheeled technology’s inability to negotiate steep grades in the Cajon Pass which links the high desert to the Los Angeles basin…
“When we zero in on the Inland Empire and the high desert, that’s where the population growth is occurring,” Tom Stone, president of the DesertXpress, said in defense of the Victorville hub. “That’s where the growth revenues will be coming the next 20 years.”
Stone makes a very good point here. It’s good to stop thinking about a generic “Southern California” but of the discrete sub-regions that comprise the SoCal megalopolis. The Inland Empire is likely to continue to see population growth, although not in the sprawling way it had been. And with the traffic on Interstate 15 that affects nearly all Southern Californians who drive to Vegas, Victorville is still beneficial to those who don’t live in the Inland Empire.
Obviously the goal is to link the DesertXpress project to the inner cores of the Southern California region. And that would best be accomplished by extending that line westward across the flat Antelope Valley to the California HSR project at Palmdale. As Tom Stone of DesertXpress said at the RailPAC meeting in April, DesertXpress and the California High Speed Rail Authority are in “active discussions” on the topic.
Perl and Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic were asked for their thoughts on the Victorville question for the LVRJ article, and make excellent points about the need to extend to Palmdale. I’d just add one more: if there’s construction on the DesertXpress project from Vegas to Victorville and on the California HSR project from Anaheim to SF happening at the same time, you’ll see a clamor to close that Palmdale-Victorville gap. Clamor becomes political momentum, as we often see with other rail lines that start off small but successful and generate demand for extensions.
Unfortunately, the otherwise solid article encounters bumps when examining the finances:
According to a U.S. Department of Transportation study performed in 1990, the average overrun costs related to rail projects is about 50 percent. Seven of 10 major rail lines studied in the United States had exceeded the original budget by 30 percent to 100 percent.
If that is the case, both projected price tags — DesertXpress’ $4 billion and Interstate Maglev’s $12 billion — could be expected to balloon.
California can attest to this pattern. In 2008, voters approved a $9 billion bond to help fund the 700-mile route between San Francisco and Los Angeles, a project expected to cost $33.6 billion. According to Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, the price tag has grown to $42.6 billion.
I’m almost surprised Adrienne Packer (who wrote the article) didn’t go interview Bent Flyvberg, whose out-of-context studies on cost overruns are getting WAY too much attention in recent weeks. Unfortunately she misses some key details here, such as the fact that cost overruns are often caused by unwise but major design changes that take place after the project is underway, or the fact that the California HSR project’s price tag “grew” because the federal government forced the project to use year-of-expenditure dollars instead of 2008; the $33 and $42 billion numbers are therefore the same number with different inflation assumptions.
The underlying problem with “cost overruns” isn’t that they are inherent on big projects. Many rail lines, like the Metro Gold Line East extension and Seattle’s Central Link light rail, have been brought in on-budget. The underlying problem is that political forces demand unrealistically low cost assumptions at the outset. Instead of designing the best project, assigning a price tag to it, and finding the funding, anti-tax and anti-spending forces box public planners in and create a political imperative to lower the costs at the outset, often in unrealistic ways.
Those projects that had good political leadership, like Sound Transit in Seattle after 2001, have shown that one can build a good system without having any cost overruns. Projects with poor leadership, those that would not admit realities or were afraid to ask the voters to properly fund the projects, encountered problems.
Packer’s article also repeats some other misstatements about the California HSR project, including repeating this quote from the Hoover Institution, that the “latest business plan contains no realistic outline of how California will pay to build a high-speed rail system…And so the ridership problems, political problems, route problems and timeline problems all become secondary — none of them matters if billions of construction dollars never materialize.”
I’m guessing Packer didn’t realize the Hoover Institution is a biased, right-wing think tank that has an ideological agenda to push when it makes these statements. The business plan absolutely contained a realistic outline of how California will pay to build a high speed rail system. They just didn’t like the outline. Sure, more details are needed and will be coming, but the outline given in the 2009 plan IS realistic.
Of course, the billions of dollars won’t fail to materialize because of natural forces – it would fail to materialize because groups like the Hoover Institution actively worked to ensure they did not materialize.
The rest of the article briefly examined the conventional passenger train proposals, which Freemark doesn’t think will recover their operating costs, and the need to end the “debate” and move forward with a rail option to meet Las Vegas’s long-term needs.
I’ll admit that I’m not a particularly big fan of Las Vegas – its kind of entertainment isn’t mine. But it’s obvious that a hell of a lot of people – especially in Southern California – are indeed big fans of Vegas, and regularly drive there to enjoy the resorts. And that’s likely to continue to be the case for some time, despite the other, deeper issues with the economic and hydrological viability of Las Vegas as anything but a bunch of casinos on the Strip.
As many of my friends are experiencing right now out on Interstate 15, the status quo isn’t viable. We need a high speed train to connect Southern California to Southern Nevada. If Tom Stone can find the money – and we still don’t have any solid details on that all-important question – then he will build it, and the riders will come.