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July 29, 2014

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TRANSPORTATION:

State sends no representative to talk on high-speed trains

Proponents say it won’t set funding effort back

Governors and transportation officials from across the country converged on the White House this week to discuss the future of high-speed rail with Vice President Joe Biden and the secretary of the Transportation Department.

Noticeably absent was anyone from Nevada.

Nevada has two proposed fast trains vying to whisk riders between Las Vegas and Southern California. The president has made $8 billion available for high-speed rail as part of the economic recovery package, and the Transportation Department will outline guidelines for states to apply in two weeks.

The developers of one of Nevada’s proposed rail lines, the privately financed Desert Xpress, have said they don’t want government money. But the other — the proposed maglev, or magnetic levitation, line — desperately does.

As governors and transportation officials from 24 states showed up to discuss high-speed rail with Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Nevada did not have a seat at the table. Half the other states in the nation did.

The governor’s deputy chief of staff, Mendy Elliott, said Thursday the office never saw an invitation from the vice president.

The state has been consumed with the end of the legislative session, which closed Monday, she said.

Invitations were e-mailed on May 26 from the vice president’s office to governors’ offices in all states. The event was held in Washington eight days later.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t aware of the meeting and were focused on Nevada’s current state of need,” Elliott said. She could not say whether the governor or transportation staff would have attended, saying she would need more information.

Promoters of the maglev train seeking federal money did not fret about a lost opportunity.

Nevada’s maglev developers spoke privately with LaHood in the spring, in a meeting arranged by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The developers told the secretary they were seeking $1.8 billion to develop the first leg of the train line, a 40-mile section from Las Vegas to Primm, at the state line. The money would also be used for planning the rest of the route to Anaheim, Calif.

Neil Cummings, president of the American Magline Group, the consortium that would develop the line for the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission, along with commission chairman Bruce Aguilera, a casino executive at the Bellagio, were among those attending the April 1 meeting with LaHood and other department officials in Washington.

Cummings said he does not think Nevada’s absence from the White House meeting hurt his project’s chances for money. The Transportation Department said attendance was not a requirement for funding.

“What the administration has said, and we believe them, is that funding of grants will be based on projects,” Cummings said. “It’s too bad, but I don’t think it’s going to impact our chances.”

In addition to the $8 billion for high-speed rail in the economic stimulus, President Barack Obama’s proposed fiscal 2010 budget seeks $5 billion over the next five years for rail development.

The funding signifies a massive shift in federal transportation policy as the White House turns its attention toward rail development at a level unlike any in recent history.

For decades, rail enthusiasts on both sides of the Nevada-California state line have envisioned a fast train that could carry passengers along the heavily traveled route between Las Vegas and Southern California.

The California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission has proposed a $12 billion fast train between Las Vegas and Anaheim employing magnetic levitation, a technology unused in the United States that has both supporters and detractors.

More recently, the privately backed Desert Xpress project emerged. The $4 billion high-speed-rail project is backed by Nevada political mogul Sig Rogich and relies on more traditional steel-wheel technology.

The Desert Xpress train would run between Las Vegas and Victorville, Calif., in the high desert just above the Southern California basin. Developers envision Southern California passengers beginning their Vegas experience once they board in Victorville by pre-checking into their hotel and having onboard amenities, including food and drink — though no gambling is planned.

Reid has long promoted having a fast train between the cities, but remains agnostic on the competing rail lines in Nevada.

Reid spokesman Jon Summers said, “Whether it’s high-speed rail or maglev is secondary to the senator’s priority to complete a project that moves people quickly and safely between the two states.”

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