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October 21, 2014

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Maglev money sparks a Gibbons-Reid quarrel

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced his support for DesertXpress over a magnetic levitation train this summer, it seemed to end Nevada’s long-running train feud.

Reid was frustrated with the sluggish pace of planning for the maglev, envisioned as a $12 billion, publicly financed 300 mph dynamo that would carry passengers between Las Vegas and Orange County.

So Reid settled on DesertXpress, the 150 mph privately operated train financed in part with government loans that would travel to Victorville, the high-desert outpost 80 miles from Los Angeles.

But government programs can be Rasputin-like, such that even when one of the most powerful figures in Washington declares them dead, they stagger and stammer, but remain alive.

The train war has taken on new importance with President Barack Obama’s initial $8 billion investment in high-speed rail — the largest rail investment since the transcontinental railroad — to be spent on designated corridors, including Las Vegas to Southern California.

Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons gave the flagging maglev some life this week with a news release claiming that the Federal Railroad Administration had approved a work plan, to be followed soon by $45 million in contracts, which would “enable final design, engineering and environmental approvals necessary to build the starter segment of ‘the fastest train in the world’ right here in Nevada.”

This had Nevada political and transportation circles buzzing, given Reid’s stated preference for DesertXpress.

Confusion and political infighting followed.

The Federal Railroad Administration “has made neither an award nor an announcement with regard to funding for maglev development in Nevada,” a spokesman said.

No doubt the agency wanted to avoid irritating Reid.

In fact, the money appears to be on its way now, after it was buried in a 2008 federal transportation funding measure, back when Reid supported maglev.

Gibbons’ office released e-mails from this summer that appear to show the Nevada Transportation Department corresponding with federal officials and attempting to clear up technical issues so the money could be released.

Gibbons, who is running for reelection in 2010 in a crowded Republican field, used the dust-up to take a shot at Reid, who is held in contempt by Nevada Republicans.

“Sen. Reid needs to walk his talk and do what is best for Nevada,” he said in a statement. “I am mystified by the fact that he is standing in the way of a project that will help working families and those families dealing with unemployment. I am trying to create jobs and stimulate the economy in Nevada. Sen. Reid should do the same.”

Gibbons’ shot at Reid isn’t merely political. It’s also personal. Republican image-maven Sig Rogich, a key DesertXpress backer, helped Gibbons win the 2006 election, but the two are now estranged. Rogich now leads a group of high-powered Republicans supporting Reid.

Reid spokesman Jon Summers shot right back at Gibbons, citing maglev supporters’ failure to get the project moving: “We have been talking about maglev for 30 years and Sen. Reid had been a supporter for a long time. But we have seen more progress by DesertXpress in the last couple of years than we have seen from maglev in three decades.”

Summers continued: “DesertXpress is set to break ground in the near future and stands to put Nevadans to work much sooner than maglev. This is another example of Gov. Gibbons picking political fights, and misleading Nevadans in an effort to distract from his own failed leadership.”

The political intrigue is even richer: Reid’s son, Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid, is the likely Democratic nominee for governor, and the opponent Gibbons would face should he prevail in the primary.

Neil Cummings, president of American Magline Group, said that with the necessary environmental, engineering and design work for the maglev to Primm, the company can begin the process of securing financing from public and private sources to build it.

Sun reporters Lisa Mascaro, David McGrath Schwartz and Richard N. Velotta contributed to this story.

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