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January 28, 2015

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High-speed train plan gets notice in D.C.

Projects like DesertXpress should be part of federal strategy, Nevadan tells panel

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The proposed DesertXpress train between Las Vegas and Southern California got a shout-out on Tuesday at a Senate hearing on the future of high-speed rail.

It came as the Transportation Department’s Federal Railroad Authority prepares to release an unprecedented $8 billion for train development as part of the economic recovery act.

The privately backed DesertXpress and a publicly financed magnetic levitation train are vying for the route between Las Vegas and Southern California.

Tom Skancke, a transportation consultant from Nevada, testified that Washington’s newfound interest in rail development should include emphasis on newly proposed corridors, such as the route proposed by DesertXpress between Las Vegas and Victorville, Calif.

“The nation’s new vision should not just focus on existing passenger rail lines but should expand beyond the current corridors,” said Skancke, who also serves as a commissioner on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. In a study several years ago the commission recommended a vast western system, including the Las Vegas link.

“The first phase of a western connection is currently under way with the DesertXpress high-speed rail project,” Skancke continued before a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

He explained that the project is planned to connect Victorville and Palmdale, Calif., where it would tie into the proposed California high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco. With those connections, he pointed out, the train would connect three major metropolitan areas.

Skancke was appointed to the commission by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Reid had been a longtime supporter of the maglev proposal, funneling federal aid to the California Nevada Super Speed Train Commission for its development.

But he recently announced his support for DesertXpress, saying he was tired after 30 years of waiting for the maglev proposal to come to fruition.

The senator’s support brings clout to the DesertXpress proposal, which is promoted by Republican political guru Sig Rogich. Rogich is a Reid political ally who is backing the senator’s 2010 reelection and serving as co-chairman of Republicans for Reid.

Maglev’s supporters have vowed to press on, and are hoping to capture a portion of economic recovery money to develop the $12 billion train to Anaheim.

An official with the Federal Railroad Authority testified at Tuesday’s hearing that projects will be judged on their merits, including their financial viability.

DesertXpress promoters are not seeking government grants, but have indicated recently that they may seek government loans. Project backers have poured $25 million in private funding to develop necessary planning documents for the $4 billion line.

Transportation experts say private passenger rail companies rarely survive in this country, or worldwide, because they are not profitable. The costs to develop and operate train lines typically require public assistance.

DesertXpress has said it could break ground on the project next year — although past start dates have been postponed.

Skeptics continue to question the Victorville terminus, but the company believes Southern California travelers will be willing to drive to the high-desert outpost 85 miles north of the Los Angeles basin and ride the train with food, drinks and entertainment to Vegas.

Skancke said he highlighted DesertXpress because “I was trying to show the committee something that could be done right away.”

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