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April 20, 2014

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Beyond Victorville: Coloradans covet high-speed rail, too

But there’s reason to see them as allies as well as rivals

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associated press file

A sign directs drivers in March 2006 to exit Interstate 70 about 20 miles outside of Denver in the suburb of Aurora, Colo., because of treacherous driving conditions.

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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 looking for ways 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. Weekend travelers tell horror stories of how a normal four-hour trip between Las Vegas and Southern California can take 10 hours or longer.

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.

Different challenges confront motorists on Colorado’s Interstate 70: 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; blizzards make them treacherous.

When it comes to transporting tourists between resorts and population centers, Colorado and Nevada have a lot in common — and are grappling with some of the same issues.

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

Click to enlarge photo

A rendering shows a DesertXpress train, which is expected to reach a top speed of about 150 miles per hour and travel between Victorville, Calif., and Las Vegas.

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 — the electromagnet-propelled trains that have been under consideration for the trip 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.

Dr. Florine Raitano, executive director of the I-70 Coalition, and board member Harry Dale, a Clear Creek County commissioner, are convinced that maglev is best, in part because of its 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 system would be less affected by weather because 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 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 would be considerably less expensive than their critics have been quoting.

Dale and Raitano are encouraged by a proposal unveiled last week to use high-speed trains to connect the major cities in four of the fastest-growing states in the nation, all in the Southwest.

The plan is being promoted by the nascent Western High-Speed Rail Alliance, a coalition that includes Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. New Mexico is contemplating signing on as well.

The cities are 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.

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 biggest obstacle is probably the cost, which can be cast as an investment in the nation’s infrastructure, similar to the expensive public works projects of the Work Projects Administration during the Great Depression or the development of the Interstate Highway System.

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 in the 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 largest cities 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.

A high-speed network of trains — perhaps maglevs — linking the fast-growing cities separated by great distances would be a dramatic economic stimulus for the Southwest — and all the more so if the system is manufactured domestically.

At the hub of such a regional network stands Las Vegas, which needs more visitors and is willing to serve as the high-speed gateway to the West Coast — even if, for now, that means only as far as Victorville.

A version of this story appears in this week’s In Business Las Vegas, a sister publication of the Sun.

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