BLM Approves DesertXpress Project – and Utah Wants In
Right before the Thanksgiving break the federal Bureau of Land Management issued a Record of Decision allowing DesertXpress to build a high speed train from Victorville to Las Vegas:
The decision authorizes a Right of Way grant to DesertXpress Enterprises, LLC to construct and operate a high-speed passenger rail line between Victorville, Calif. and Las Vegas, Nev. on public lands. The passenger rail line would be a fully grade-separated, dedicated double track passenger-only railroad along a 200-mile corridor that would generally follow the route of Interstate 15. The majority of the right-of-way would fall on previously disturbed lands and within existing energy production and utility corridors.
Still no word yet on how DesertXpress would finance construction, but they are still the closest true HSR project anywhere in the country to actual construction. As gas prices continue to be sky high, you’d think that maybe the state of Nevada and/or the casinos would be interested in helping get this project under way, given that rising gas prices or even just the regular Interstate 15 traffic james might convince more Southern Californians to gamble at Indian casinos closer to home.
And even as the financial questions remained unanswered, some in Utah are calling for a high speed rail system to be built to link Salt Lake City to Vegas:
Talk of regional rail connecting Western hubs such as Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Reno, Nev., is nothing new. But Utah Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, now wants to form a working group of stakeholders who could vet the train talk and perhaps secure federal funding for the all-important studies.
As McAdams sees it, there’s no harm in exploring a Rocky Mountain version of what has long-connected far-flung cities in Japan and across Europe — even if the network would cost tens of billions of dollars and take 20 to 30 years to build.
“We can’t let this pass us by,” McAdams says. “We need to study whether a connection makes sense. We are the crossroads of the West. And we don’t want to be left behind.”
The idea would be for a high-speed train hub to be built at Salt Lake City International Airport. The route is an open question. But McAdams notes it would be far less expensive to take a 200 to 300 mph train over public lands — perhaps alongside Interstate 15 with a stop in St. George — rather than atop purchased private property.
So it sounds pretty much like the DesertXpress project – run alongside Interstate 15, connect major stops but bypass intermediate cities. Of course DesertXpress is only planning to build the first phase to Victorville, saving a connection to LA via Palmdale for later on. In Utah this would be like running a train from Vegas to Nephi, although I suspect it would be significantly cheaper to build to SLC from there than it would be to build to downtown LA from Victorville.
At this point, though, the Utah HSR effort seems primarily designed to ensure the state is in the mix for future federal funding:
But fed maps left out the Southwest and Intermountain West, prompting the creation of the Western High Speed Rail Alliance, formed in part by Utah Transit Authority CEO John Inglish. During the past few years, the alliance has worked to raise money, plan and advocate for a system that ultimately would link population centers between Colorado and California….
UTA is working with state leaders, Mountainland Association of Governments, Wasatch Front Regional Council and the Salt Lake Chamber on high-speed-rail strategies. A connection to Vegas, officials say, could curb air pollution and cut down the “short” flights between Utah’s capital and the gambling hub.
McAdams notes 70 percent of Salt Lake City airport traffic is passengers making connections — many to Vegas — including a large percentage who take Delta’s direct flight from Tokyo en route to Sin City. He sees the airport dispatching both planes and trains — “Delta could run it,” he says — similar to European cities.
“It’s been the transportation of preference in Europe and Asia — and the U.S. has the right demographics,” he adds. “I’m not calling to build it. But there seems to be growing acceptance to the idea in the U.S.”
These arguments make sense, especially if the goal is to build a national, interconnected high speed rail network, and I believe that’s exactly what the goal ought to be. Would SLC-Vegas be one of the first routes I’d want to see built? No, and neither is Victorville-Vegas. But to generate support for a long-term federal funding plan to build a national network, places like Utah will need to have an HSR plan in place. Now is as good a time as any to start.