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April 23, 2014

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A boost for DesertXpress

Reid uses corridor designation to show backing for private project

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Leila Navidi

Senator Harry Reid, with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, holds a press conference about a proposed high-speed train that would go from Las Vegas to Southern California in downtown Las Vegas Thursday, July 2, 2009.

High-speed train press conference

A map of the proposed high-speed train that would go from Las Vegas to Southern California in downtown Las Vegas Thursday, July 2, 2009. Launch slideshow »

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  • Sen. Harry Reid speaks at a press conference on Thursday, July 2, 2009.
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  • U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood speaks at a press conference on Thursday, July 2, 2009.
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Nowhere on the official documents from Thursday’s announcement of a new high-speed rail corridor between Las Vegas and Los Angeles is the proposed DesertXpress featured as the preferred project.

But make no mistake: DesertXpress is the chosen one, at least for now.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid backs the private venture, and he let it be known that the privately backed train to Victorville, Calif., not the once-hoped-for magnetic levitation train to Anaheim, was the one for which the Transportation Department’s new corridor is intended.

The publicly run $12 billion maglev proposal has worn out its welcome after 30 years in the planning stages, Reid said. He reiterated that he is ready to put his efforts into the newer DesertXpress.

“I’m not going to put any more of my (time) into maglev,” Reid said. “It’s time for action in this corridor. We’re past the planning stage; we’ve got to move on and start the construction.”

Reid predicted that the $5 billion Desert-

Xpress, backed by his political supporter Sig Rogich, a Republican leader in Nevada, would be up and running by 2012. Ground would be broken early next year, and Reid said it would be built with “40 to 50 percent” private financing, and the rest government loans, if needed.

The announcement Thursday came with a large map showing the DesertXpress route to Victorville, the high-desert outpost 85 miles north of Los Angeles, and its planned spur to Palmdale to connect with California’s planned north-south line connecting San Francisco, Los Angeles and Orange County.

But the Transportation Department made it clear later in the day that it did not supply that map. Also, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declined to weigh in on the fierce competition between the two Las Vegas trains.

“We believe that the development of regional high-speed passenger rail systems will create jobs, spur economic development and provide positive environmental benefits for all Americans,” LaHood said in a statement.

A Transportation spokeswoman later explained that the department did not choose one train over the other. “We didn’t pick a route,” she said. “We know there are obviously two competing proposals. The states decide.”

Technically, the Las Vegas route is an extension of the department’s existing California corridor, an offshoot of that state’s $45 billion line, which will be financed in part by an $11 billion bond passed by voters last fall.

Establishing a corridor will open the door to allow the Las Vegas project to compete for $8 billion in federal stimulus money passed by Congress this year, as well as other federal aid.

However, DesertXpress does not immediately qualify for that money because it is not a state-sponsored agency, which is required under federal guidelines. No private companies can independently qualify.

DesertXpress has insisted it has no interest in tapping the stimulus money, but said it may want low-interest government loans. The company has said it intends to privately finance 30 percent of the cost, but would borrow the rest — about $3.5 billion.

The Transportation Department runs a loan program that can fund 100 percent of the project, payable in 35 years.

Experts say there are virtually no privately run rail lines in operation anywhere in the world because they cannot be built without public money, and cannot turn a profit. The private monorail system in Las Vegas may soon seek public aid.

DesertXpress issued a statement saying it was “thrilled” with the day’s announcement. The company has poured $25 million into planning documents.

“The solid support expressed for our privately funded DesertXpress project today, as part of a great solution to

I-15 congestion and as a lifeline to Nevada’s tourism industry, is significant,” DesertXpress President Tom Stone said.

The publicly run maglev proposal will continue to press on, its backers said.

“We intend to move ahead,” said Neil Cummings, president of American Magline Group, the private consortium hired by the California Nevada Super Speed Train Commission to build the maglev train.

He understood, however, the message at the conference.

“Certainly, there was no mention of the maglev system,” he said.

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