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October 31, 2014

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COMMENTARY:

High speed rail: Make use of the wait time

One week ago marked the true beginning of America’s recommitment to passenger rail service. For Nevada, however, the restart will have to wait.

And because it must, using the requisite wait time well will now be crucial. Essential now is going to be total focus, strong coordination and a full-court press to marry a powerful case for high-speed rail in the Mountain West to top-flight organizing.

Here’s the deal: A week ago, $8 billion in federal stimulus funding was distributed to 31 states in almost every region of the country for high-speed rail projects. Those investments ranged from California’s huge $2.34 billion infusion to some $2.6 billion for lines between Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Madison to a $1.1 billion grant to Central Florida.

However, conspicuously absent were concrete investments in the Intermountain West. Specifically, the excessively diffuse distribution of federal money last week managed to miss two of the country’s 10 most traveled air corridors — Los Angeles-Las Vegas and L.A.-Phoenix — even though the Vegas link had received significant attention and air travel is an important measure of rail potential.

To be sure, post-rejection squabbling in Nevada has pointed to execution problems with the Nevada application. But for all that the first thing to say about the overlooked desert corridors is that at least on the basis of one relevant, objective metric of potential corridor potential — air travel along the route — the L.A.-Vegas proposed rail link stands out as a prime candidate for high-speed development.

How is this? As my colleagues at Brookings Mountain West and I recently noted, two of the most important dimensions of rail corridor prioritization are distance and demand.

Distance matters because at distances of less than 400 miles, high-speed rail can meet or beat air travel times. And guess what? L.A.-Las Vegas — at 229 miles — measures up as an optimal-length potential rail route.

Demand, meanwhile, also matters because if you build it, you’d like them to come. And here the detailed statistics for air travel our Brookings group assembled highlight a stunning fact.

According to our research on inter-metro travel, the corridors running between Los Angeles and the two southernmost Intermountain megalopolises — Las Vegas and Phoenix — constitute two of the most heavily traveled short-haul air links in the nation and so may represent prime candidates for high-speed rail investment, to the extent that air traffic data provides a relevant and objective guide.

No fewer than around 3.7 million air passengers a year have been traveling between L.A. and Vegas in recent years.

To put these numbers in perspective, the total amount of travelers on Amtrak’s Acela Express and Northeast Regional lines were 11.7 million in fiscal year 2008. Yet that total corridor services 14 major metropolitan areas.

The bottom line: By at least one objective and relevant batch of data, Las Vegas can mount an extremely compelling case for rail connection to L.A.

And yet, making the case objectively is only part of the challenge now. Also crucial is advancing the case and the claim — and that will require new concentration and constant coordination.

Note that the regions that secured big funding — California and the Midwest but also Florida — have been making steady, focused progress on rail and the politics of rail for at least a decade, even when there was no chance of large federal infusions.

California has spent more than a decade planning its 800-mile high-speed rail route from Sacramento to San Diego, and voters there had anted up $9 billion. Multiple regions, a Republican governor, a powerful Democratic congressional delegation and business elites are all fully on board.

In the Midwest, the venerable Midwest High Speed Rail Association has been promoting fast trains, weaving together disparate factions across multiple states, and holding educational events packed with public officials since 1993, while the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission brings together state leaders from across 10 states to advocate for passenger rail improvements.

And then there is Florida: That similarly youthful Orlando-Tampa snared $1.25 billion for Phase 1 high-speed rail last week attests to an extremely well-organized, long-standing push that saw Florida voters approve a state system back in 2000 and the Legislature call a special legislative session to expand funding for Orlando’s SunRail and the Miami metro’s TriRail as part of a deal with the feds to deliver the Phase 1 money.

By contrast, such structure and coordination in the Mountain West is only getting started. Auspiciously, five key planning agencies across the region have now united to form the Western High Speed Rail Alliance. However, this partnership is new, and has not yet had sufficient time to build broad support for rail in the region, or enlist the unanimous buy-in of state and federal lawmakers from all of the relevant states, including California.

For that matter, continued tension between rival Southern California-Las Vegas projects — and an outburst of political finger-pointing in Nevada a week ago — suggest how much work remains ahead of the region to construct a truly viable multistate coalition in support of high speed rail in the Southwest.

All of which is to say: Rail in the Southwest is right on schedule. California, the Midwest and Central Florida underscore that assembling a truly viable rail system takes a while, but also that you need to use your time well while you wait.

With focus and constant coordination and negotiation, a region needs to work out not only a superb technical case for rail’s viability but also a powerful, broad-based and multistate political base.

And so, starting with that compelling air data, the states and metropolitan areas of the Southwestern deserts should shake off the recent White House decisions and get back to work.

Constructing a state-of-the-art technical and political alignment for rail in the desert is going to require a lot more work, but it’s a worthy cause.

Mark Muro is the co-director of Brookings Mountain West, a partnership of the Brookings Institution and UNLV.

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