Las Vegas Sun

August 22, 2014

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BRIAN GREENSPUN: WHERE I STAND:

Let’s get our 30-year-old maglev dream back on track

If train project was a good idea then, it’s a great one now

Everything old is new again.

It wasn’t that long ago when the idea for a high-speed train linking Los Angeles and Las Vegas was first floated. If I am not mistaken, it was Las Vegas’ always smiling, always optimistic and always likable Mayor Bill Briare who touted the idea as a way to bring tourists from Southern California at speeds far faster and a ride far more pleasurable than the Greyhounds of the day or the car trips over the Cajon Pass or up the Baker grade in August.

It was a fine idea. And it was one whose time had come and the execution of which was just a few years away — what with financing, permits and construction yet to be accomplished. That was close to 30 years ago!

This past Thursday I went to a conference — presented by UNLV, the Urban Land Institute and the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission — that featured the latest update of the proposed maglev train that would be built between Anaheim and Las Vegas.

I don’t remember the first such presentation I attended except that I was a relatively young man who harbored an idea that tourism on both sides of the border could get a big boost from a high-speed train because it traveled very quickly in both directions. As many years passed with very little accomplished, it became apparent that the 3.5 hour drive to Los Angeles in the early days, which became four, then five and many times six hours or more as the traffic counts expanded and the interstate highway system did not, would be the norm because the dream of a magnetic levitation train was just that, and an impossible one at that.

Fast forward to last week and it was apparent to those in the crowded room at UNLV that the train idea was back on track with a boost by none other than President Barack Obama. Not only did the president follow through on his promise to advance needed technological infrastructure, which means tens of thousands of construction jobs and thousands of permanent ones once the train starts running, but he also made that promise a solid one by providing billions of dollars in the latest stimulus bill for projects just like this.

There is no certainty that the California-Nevada maglev project will get some, all or most of the money, but the way the stars align out West these days, there is every reason to believe that this time the track will get built and the trains will roll.

Actually, the trains will not roll because that is not the way magnetically levitated transportation works. In fact, there is no rubber meeting the road and no metal touching the tracks. This is a technology that uses electricity and magnets. You put them together, add a very comfortable train car or cars on top and, as Jackie Gleason used to say, away we go.

Listening to the presentation not only brought back the hopeful vision of a much younger Brian from decades ago but also a very fond and recent remembrance from Shanghai, China, just a couple of years ago.

What has taken us three decades to get within what we might be five years from — a high-speed train operating between Las Vegas and Southern California — took the Chinese barely three years from conception, through construction and into operation.

OK, so we are a quarter of a century behind them on our own idea using German technology, but who is counting? The fact remains that it was a good idea 30 years ago and it remains a remarkably good one today. And there is no better time than the present to get it done.

Las Vegas is living proof of what happens to a city, dependent on tourism, when those tourists don’t come. Today they stay away because of the economic situation. But if you remember not very long ago, we were all wringing our hands at the prospect of an eight-hour drive time — both for our friends coming up from California and our own citizens returning southward with many of those tourists dollars and a desire to return them for some good clean fun and sun.

So, rather than let ourselves succumb to the ignorant ranting of those who refuse to change and who delight in condemning all those who seek nothing more than to help our community grow, let us focus on making what is an old dream a new one again.

But, this time, let’s enlist the help of our planners and our doers, our elected officials and our community leaders and, especially, our own Harry Reid, the state’s senior senator and U.S. Senate majority leader who seems to have a talent for providing the resources our tiny state needs to grow its way to success.

I took a ride on the maglev train in Shanghai and it was a thrill I would gladly repeat over and over again. It saved me 30 minutes on a trip to the airport. Just imagine millions of tourists getting that same thrill on their way to Las Vegas to fill up our 140,000 hotel rooms on a daily basis — and saving hours of travel time along the way.

That can be our future. Everything old can be new again. And we can have all of it if we keep our eye on the ball and our friends in the kind of places that make such things happen.

Brian Greenspun is editor of the Las Vegas Sun.