Friday, Aug. 19, 2005 | 6:36 a.m.
Is the future of a long-stalled plan to construct a magnetic levitation train route over the sand between Las Vegas and Southern California a hazy desert mirage or a sure bet?
Critics of the high-speed "maglev" technology say it still faces obstacles in this country: high costs, investor reticence and ridership uncertainty.
But maglev backers argue it is a commercially viable antidote to clogged freeways and airports. And advocates of the California-Nevada train say it is a big step closer to reality now that Congress has earmarked $45 million to finally develop the nation's first maglev train.
Project officials had long hoped for a far bigger investment from Congress. But they were still thrilled with the cash, given that many thought the project died four years ago.
"We consider this to be a huge comeback victory," said Neil Cummings, leader of the American Magline Group, a consortium of technology and management firms that aims to develop the project.
For 25 years politicians and dreamers have envisioned futuristic trains zooming through the Mojave Desert powered by clean, frictionless magnetic force and designed to surpass speeds of 300 mph.
But development of the California-Nevada project has plodded along more like a pump car than a bullet train.
The problem? Money.
Proposals for a handful of maglev projects across the country carry price tags of $3 billion to $4 billion. It would cost $1.3 billion to construct the 40-mile Las Vegas-to-Primm leg of a $4.4 billion route to Anaheim, Calif.
For that kind of cash, maglev managers in Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Atlanta and Florida for years had turned a hopeful eye to Congress, elbowing each other for a shot at $950 million that lawmakers said could be available for the right project.
At times Nevada appeared out of the running. In 2001 the Transportation Department announced preference for two projects: one in the Pittsburgh area and one linking Washington and Baltimore.
But Nevada lawmakers led by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., kept the California-Nevada project alive by funneling about $7 million to it from Congress in recent years.
This year there was talk that lawmakers finally might approve some big money for a maglev project -- or projects -- as part of the $284 billion transportation bill, which President Bush signed earlier this month.
Bush had threatened to veto the pork-laden bill if the total was too high, and in the end it included only $90 million for a maglev -- half for a project to be named later east of the Mississippi River and half for Las Vegas-to-Primm.
"We would have liked to have done more, but we had some constraints," said Justin Harclerode, spokesman for the House Transportation Committee that wrote much of the bill. "So we did the best we could with it."
The $45 million was "quite nice," said Bruce Aguilera, chairman of the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission, a panel of business and government officials created 17 years ago. But it was disappointing Congress didn't approve more, he said.
"This has given us an opportunity to really do some soul-searching and to realize that Congress is not going to be our sugar daddy on this project," Aguilera said.
The $45 million might carry the project through planning to initial construction work in two to four years, advocates said.
The $45 million is to be allocated between fiscal years 2006 and 2009 to finish design, engineering and alignment work, as well as an environmental impact statement. It will pay for other planning, such as certification work with the Federal Railroad Administration, and locating and designing stations, said Cummings, whose American Magline Group is the train commission's private-sector partner.
But the primary focus now for the project -- and perhaps its biggest hurdle -- will be finding money.
Two funding options are train revenue-backed, tax-exempt bonds that the commission hopes to sell to investors, and TIFIA -- a federal transportation project loan program, project officials said.
They plan a sales job modeled on arguments they have made for years -- that the Nevada-California project is the easiest and cheapest to construct. Planners say the project would serve two high-growth areas, raking in profits from traffic-weary travelers while demonstrating the technology to tourists from around the world.
They estimate 14.5 million riders a year would take the 12-minute ride between Las Vegas and Primm, and ultimately 40.4 million would travel the 86-minute, 269-mile route between Las Vegas and Anaheim.
"We're going to tell a very compelling story," Cummings said. "This is a project that can make money and justify itself."
Wall Street investors should swoon over the project because it's fast, safe, quiet and doesn't use fuel, according to Aguilera, who traveled to Shanghai, China, in 2003 to ride a maglev train.
"Everybody is going to want one of these things," Aguilera said. "It's the way to go in the 21st century."
That remains to be seen. Critics say maglev is too expensive and impractical.
Among those critics is the Bush administration, which has never included money for maglev in White House budget proposals.
The administration "believes funds can be better spent investing in the nation's public transportation systems," according to the White House's most recent maglev policy statement, in February 2004.
Critics note that the Shanghai line, which whisks passengers 20 miles to an airport in seven minutes and 20 seconds, is the world's only commercially operating maglev train. Germany and Japan have tested the technology.
Building maglev lines is risky business because of high construction and maintenance costs and potential technical problems, said Kenneth Button, director of the Center for Transportation Policy, Operations and Logistics at the George Mason University School of Public Policy.
He said there's also the question of ridership. To be profitable, maglev projects likely would have to serve cities with "many millions" of potential passengers, Button said. He was skeptical of maglev making money in Nevada.
"You really need dense population centers at either end, and very few stops," he said.
Maglev is impressive technology, but it could have a tough time competing with low-fare airlines and the federally backed highway system, UNLV Transportation Research Center professor Edward Neumann said. Many drivers prefer the door-to-door convenience of roads, he said.
Neumann said there are always entrepreneurs looking for promising technology, but he noted that maglev's track record of attracting investors was not good.
"I would guess that the fact that there aren't three or four (investors) trying to get the franchise indicates there are currently more attractive investments," he said.
It also remains to be seen if Congress would ever spend anywhere near as much as the $950 million it once promised for maglev.
Reid plans to continue securing money for the project, aides said. Nevada lawmakers also have an important ally in House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, a strong advocate of developing maglev technology in the West. Young was largely responsible for earmarking the $45 million.
But after long and bruising fights on Capitol Hill over transportation money, there may not be much more for maglev anytime soon, said Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., a member of the House Transportation Committee.
"It's going to be a challenge to find additional resources to fund this beyond what has already been given," Berkley said. "But one never knows. For a project like this, it's always worth a try."