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TRANSPORTATION:

Plans for high-speed Vegas to Victorville train line unveiled

Updated Tuesday, April 28, 2009 | 8:07 p.m.

DesertXpress

The fully electric DesertXpress trains will reach top speeds of 150 miles-per-hour and travel 184 miles from Victorville, CA to Las Vegas, NV in 84 minutes. Launch slideshow »

A high-speed rail alternative to the oft-discussed magnetic levitation train to Southern California would be privately funded, create up to 3,000 jobs during construction and prompt the displacement of some desert tortoises, representatives of the Federal Railroad Administration and an environmental consultant told a crowd of about 100 people Tuesday evening.

The alternative, called DesertXpress, would connect Las Vegas to Victorville – not Anaheim, as the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission proposes for its fledgling maglev project. DesertXpress would operate at a speed of 150 mph – half that of maglev. A one-way ticket would cost about $55.

But DesertXpress Enterprises believes its project is more viable: a draft environmental impact statement was completed last month – so already it’s further along than maglev – and the cost, its representatives argue, would be far less with little to no long-term expense to taxpayers. DesertXpress could be funded through long-term debt and equity financing, as well as a public loan, a spokesman said.

Maglev representatives hope their environmental document is ready for public consideration in 12 to 18 months.

And, representatives of DesertXpress note, a second phase would connect the train – either diesel- or electric-based – to a nexus of public transit north of Los Angeles in Palmdale, Calif. The draft environmental impact statement did not include a study of the Victorville-to-Palmdale leg.

Construction on the first phase could be completed in four years.

Representatives of DesertXpress estimate that construction of the 180-mile project at $3.5 billion to $4 billion, whereas they predict the 260-mile maglev line at $16 billion to $52 billion. The commission, however, recently pegged the maglev project at about $12 billion.

DesertXpress would share existing transportation corridors, mostly Interstate 15. For example, an 85-mile stretch from Yermo, Calif. to Mountain Pass would be built in the freeway median and alongside it, said Scott Steinwert, president of CirclePoint in San Francisco. CirclePoint is DesertXpress’ environmental consultant.

A span of the train could be built along the Union Pacific Railroad into the Las Vegas area, north of Jean. And a section of I-15 in the southern Las Vegas Valley could be built over the median – Steinwert called this an “aerial structure” – akin to the elevated AirTrain over the Van Wyck Expressway in Queens, N.Y.

A potential Las Vegas station could be near I-15 and Flamingo Road, Steinwert said. A maintenance facility could be built near I-15 and Wigwam or I-15 and Robindale Road.

The environmental study identified potential problems. They include: some habitat damage for the desert tortoise and Mohave ground squirrel; the crossing of ephemeral streams; traffic near the proposed stations; and “significant” noise and vibration near Victorville, Barstow, Yermo and Las Vegas, though road improvements in all but Victorville could ease that disruption.

The pluses: the train could create up to 700 full-time jobs at proposed Victorville and Las Vegas maintenance facilities, lessen freeway congestion and improve air quality.

All 12 attendees who spoke during the Tuesday meeting at an off-Strip hotel supported high-speed rail, though some support maglev and one preferred a third option, a solar-based alternative.

The largest skepticism was for the Victorville terminus.

“A train starting in Victorville, how attractive will that be for people in Los Angeles? That’s our primary market,” said resident Tom Piechota.

Jeff Rhoads, president of the Argonaut Company in Las Vegas, implored DesertXpress leaders to ensure that whatever train technology is chosen that it aligns with the California system from Palmdale up to Northern California. Resident Glenn Trowbridge asked DesertXpress representatives to consider adding a station at the future Ivanpah Airport, south of the Las Vegas Valley. Resident Brett Gordon insisted a train needs to incorporate passengers and freight. (Southern California is home to some of the nation’s busiest ports).

Richann Bender, executive director of the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission, asked FRA representatives to consider her alternative “because only one train can exist on this corridor.”

The FRA approved DesertXpress’ draft environmental document last month. Comments from meeting attendees, as well as written testimony submitted by May 22, will be included in the final environmental document, said Wendy Messenger, the FRA’s project manager for the study.

For more information about the project, log on to desertxpress.com. Find more information about the environmental study here.

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