Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2014

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Tourism column:

High-speed rail alliance brings Western cities aboard

It’s Monday afternoon of a three-day weekend spent at a terrific resort, and the going-home traffic is brutal.

It’s going to take hours longer to get home than it usually takes on this trip.

In some places, traffic grinds to a stop on the four-lane interstate highway.

Motorists are wondering what could possibly be delaying the flow of vehicles.

Oh well, at least the scenery’s not too bad.

No, this isn’t Interstate 15 heading for Southern California from Las Vegas. It’s Interstate 70 between the Colorado ski resorts and the Denver metropolitan area.

People who ski in Colorado face the same traffic woes as tourists who visit Las Vegas from Los Angeles. And just like the transportation experts who are seeking solutions to relieving traffic on I-15, their Colorado counterparts are doing the same thing to end jams on I-70.

In most respects, the Las Vegas-to-Southern California jams are worse because there is more distance to cover. Most of us with friends and relatives in Southern California have heard at least one horror story about how long it took to get home after a long weekend in Las Vegas.

A trip that normally takes four to five hours takes six, seven, even 10 or 11 hours.

In the summertime — think Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day — it can get unbearably hot and the potential for breaking down soars with the temperature.

Interstate 70 can become a parking lot because of the steep grades: The incline to Eisenhower Tunnel, which burrows through the Continental Divide and separates Denver from ski resorts in Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge and several locations in Summit County, is so steep that vehicles often bog down when making the climb.

In the winter, falling snow can turn highways into skating rinks. A blizzard is downright dangerous.

When it comes to transporting tourists between resorts and population centers, Colorado and Nevada have a lot in common. So it should come as no surprise that Coloradoans are grappling with some of the same issues we are.

One proposal in Colorado is a high-speed train connecting Denver with the high country.

An organization called the I-70 Coalition is exploring how best to move skiers to and from the mountains. Cognizant of the challenges that steep grades and inclement weather present to traditional steel-wheel-on-rail trains, the coalition is leaning toward supporting maglev technology — the electromagnet-propelled vehicles that have been under consideration between California and Nevada for years. But in the past year maglev has been overtaken by the more traditional technology that the DesertXpress proposal offers between Las Vegas and Victorville, Calif.

I recently had a conversation with Dr. Florine Raitano, executive director of the I-70 Coalition, and board member Harry Dale, who also is a Clear Creek County (between Summit County and Denver) commissioner. Why are they convinced that maglev is best? A lot of it has to do with the technology’s ability to negotiate the steep grades.

The main reason the DesertXpress is being built only to Victorville is that the steep Cajon Pass lies between Victorville and the Los Angeles Basin. Although the DesertXpress would be able to travel over the desert at 150 mph, it wouldn’t be able to climb Cajon Pass at that speed.

The Colorado contingent is convinced that a maglev would be less affected by weather since the guideways could have heating elements to prevent snow and ice from accumulating on them.

Maintenance costs for maglev trains are less than for conventional rail. In fact, the next version of the fabled Shinkansen “bullet train” in Japan is going to be a maglev because Japanese rail authorities recognize the lower maintenance cost as an operational advantage.

Colorado’s transportation planners also are looking at how they can incorporate green power into the development of the maglev, exploring solar and wind power generation.

Like Nevada, Colorado has its share of political obstacles to overcome to make a rail line a reality.

Part of the debate in Colorado is to determine whether it makes more sense to push for a system along I-70 to serve the resort community or to start along the front range of the Rockies to connect Denver with Colorado Springs and Pueblo to the south and the college towns of Boulder, Greeley and Fort Collins to the north.

The cost issue — the initial expense of maglev versus the less-costly traditional rail — is part of the debate. But the newest designs for maglev are considerably less expensive than their critics have been quoting.

Dale and Raitano are encouraged by a proposal unveiled last week, the Western High-Speed Rail Alliance. Its plan is to connect with high-speed trains the major cities in four of the fastest-growing states in the nation, all in the Southwest.

The coalition includes Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. New Mexico is contemplating signing on as well.

The cities include Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Reno and, if New Mexico climbs aboard, Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

The coalition isn’t far enough along to think about what technology would be used, but consider the possibilities.

If maglev connected those cities along interstate highway rights-of-way, Utah and Colorado ski resorts would be easily accessible to Las Vegans. And Las Vegas would be easily accessible to Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Reno.

With maglev’s 300 mph speed, some of Colorado’s ski resorts would be two to three hours away from Las Vegas. You could zip to Reno in a little over an hour. The Strip would be less than two hours away from Phoenix and Salt Lake City.

As we’ve reported before, maglev guideways can be built to transport electricity as well as people. If Nevada’s alternative energy future is pursued as the visionaries suggest, the Southwest would be connected on a grid. Our solar, wind and geothermal power could be exported on the new grid.

The potential is incredibly exciting. Are there obstacles? Of course.

The cost is probably the biggest. It’s a tremendous investment in the nation’s transportation future, but it’s an investment in the nation’s infrastructure.

Imagine how crazy people thought government leaders were to press for the expensive Work Projects Administration to build bridges, buildings, roads, parks and schools during the Great Depression. Think of how nutty it was to consider a nationwide network of four-lane highways in support of the Defense Department in a program that eventually became the backbone of our interstate highway system.

Think of the skepticism that President John F. Kennedy met in the early 1960s when he said the United States should put a man on the moon within a decade.

President Barack Obama has said that he wants to ride the world’s fastest train and he wants to do it in the United States, not in China — a clear reference to the lead the Chinese have built in high-speed transportation technology.

Political considerations are another obstacle. Most of the people are on the East Coast, where train travel is far more common than it is out West. Most of the political clout is in the East.

A strong high-speed train proposal from the Southwest would no doubt be a long shot for federal money when the New Yorks, Washingtons and Chicagos hold most of the political cards. Not only do the odds favor any rail stimulus occurring east of the Mississippi, but many government decision-makers are bogged down in 19th century rail technology and don’t understand the principles and superiority of the new transport means.

You have to admit, a high-speed network of trains — preferably maglevs — linking the fast-growing cities separated by great distances would be a fantastic economic stimulus for the Southwest. Some visionaries have even suggested that these new maglev vehicles be manufactured in the factories that have turned out automobiles for decades. It would be a new mission for Detroit to get America moving again.

And speaking of visionaries, it’s time for Las Vegas’ resort community to get active and leave their bystander roles behind. It’s not good enough to say you support any system that will deliver customers to the resorts. It’s time to step up and use that political influence you have to make a difference in interstate mass transportation.

A visionary maglev network for the Southwest. It could deliver millions of people to Las Vegas.

And if those people wanted to go farther west to California, they could even get off the maglev here and board that slower train to Victorville if they wanted.

Richard N. Velotta covers tourism, technology and small business for In Business Las Vegas and its sister publication, the Las Vegas Sun. He can be reached at 259-4061 or at [email protected]

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