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April 23, 2014

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TRANSPORTATION:

Alliance’s goal: Western rail system

Fast trips between major cities are what planners in four states envision

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Steve Marcus

Regional Transportation Commission Director Jacob Snow, left, and transportation consultant Tom Skancke discuss a new multistate rail alliance last week.

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Imagine boarding a train in downtown Las Vegas and getting off at a Colorado ski resort just a couple of hours later.

Or making a quick jaunt by train to Phoenix to catch a Suns game or some spring-training baseball. Or a quick round trip by train to Carson City via Reno to testify before a legislative committee. Or taking just a little more than an hour by train to get to the Mormon Temple in downtown Salt Lake City.

And just think of the millions of people across the West who might take a last-minute trip to Las Vegas to unwind if a train were available.

Even as two organizations are pitching high-speed transportation lines connecting Las Vegas and Southern California, some public transportation planners in Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Arizona are focusing on an altogether different vision: developing rail service in their states and others in the West.

Theirs is not just idle, wishful chatter around the water cooler. The officials formally ratified their alliance last week.

The group, which has been in an embryonic state for three years, calls itself the Western High-Speed Rail Alliance. Working with counterparts in other Western states, Jacob Snow, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, found several common interests within the Intermountain West and the Southwest, particularly among some of the fastest-growing states in the country.

“Since we do transportation planning and so much of what we do has to deal with the federal government and the bureaucracy and federal funding, we said, ‘What should our position be on transportation policy in the country?’ ” Snow said last week.

To find out, Snow met with representatives of transportation planning agencies in Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Denver and Reno and the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based nonprofit public policy organization that has researched transportation issues.

When Barack Obama was elected president and it became clear that high-speed rail would be an important part of his transportation policy, Snow moved to formalize the relationship with the other planning organizations.

Referring to Obama, Snow said, “When you look at what he has pushed for and what Congress has included in revenue for high-speed rail, there is money available. And we don’t want to be left out of where the country is going and where we think the country needs to be.”

The planning organizations on board with the alliance are the local RTC, the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County, the Maricopa Council of Governments in Phoenix, the Utah Transit Authority and the Denver Council of Governments. The organizations have made overtures to the Mid-Region Council of Governments in Albuquerque, but that group has not signed on. Planning organizations in Tucson and Boise have also been contacted as potential members.

Consultant Tom Skancke, who coordinates transportation initiatives for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, embraced the concept and helped form the alliance, saying he likes the idea of planning regional transportation at the local level rather than letting federal transportation officials dictate policy.

“If you look at what has happened in the past with the interstate highway system, the federal government came in and said, ‘There’s a highway coming though here.’ And that was great, but there wasn’t any planning around it,” Skancke said.

Allowing local agencies to develop routes and technologies will better enable resolution of potential problems, he said.

“We can’t move Las Vegas Boulevard,” he said. “They can’t move the temple in Salt Lake City. You can’t move the football stadium in downtown Denver. So you’ve got to start from this local planning perspective.”

Some in the alliance fear that the federal government would ignore the Southwest, Midwest and Intermountain West states to focus on the East Coast’s and California’s intrastate train systems. Snow said John Inglish, general manager of the Utah Transit Authority, was indignant that federal officials would concentrate so much on high-speed rail on the coasts when his state is the home of the golden spike that linked the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

So what would the Western High-Speed Rail Alliance’s system look like?

Snow said it’s way too early to know for sure, but members say a start would be linking the major cities — Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Reno. Because of Las Vegas’ location, he envisions it to be a major hub.

Because the system could become part of a nationwide network, Las Vegas could become the gateway for travel to Southern California.

Developers of a high-speed rail proposal to link Las Vegas with Southern California — the DesertXpress — want to break ground on the traditional rail line by the end of March. Meanwhile, backers of a maglev system are drafting an environmental impact statement for their project.

They also have started a three-week television advertising campaign to show Southern Nevadans what a similar system operating in Shanghai looks like and to inform them of how many jobs would be created.

The alliance hasn’t decided on what type of technology would be used in its network. Snow said the newest versions of steel-wheels-on-rail trains in France are reaching speeds close to what the 300 mph maglev can achieve, but maglev, although more expensive, has some advantages.

The alliance’s next order of business is to get funding. Snow hopes to take the organization to nonprofit status with its own executive leadership. The alliance would qualify for grants from the Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Transit Administration and U.S. Transportation Department. Individual agencies are familiar with the application process. Snow thinks there is greater strength in multiagency requests.

He is setting up the alliance’s next meeting, in October; the group probably would meet once a month by teleconference and quarterly face to face.

Realistically, Snow and Skancke know that a regional rail system won’t be in place for at least 20 years — that’s about how long it takes to develop a freeway interchange or 10 miles of highway because of the necessary environmental approvals. But they agreed that developing a high-speed rail network has to start somewhere, and starting it with local planners is best.

The end goal, Snow said, is to expand capacity in Las Vegas, offering a new, easier mode of transit for people tired of lines in airports or who are afraid to fly.

“This is an investment,” Skancke said. “This is not a chance. This is not a roll of the dice. This is an investment in sustainability for our communities for the next 50 to 100 years.”

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