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If you look at a map showing federally designated high-speed rail corridors in the United States, the Great Plains and intermountain West look like some kind of giant inland sea. From Kansas City to Sacramento, it’s all blank. But representatives from several of the West’s metropolitan areas – Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno, Las Vegas, and Phoenix – have set out to begin imagining a different transportation web across the West. To make high-speed rail work, say proponents, it can’t share tracks with lumbering freight trains or dawdling Amtrak trains. The new train will need their own dedicated routes. The Western High Speed Rail Alliance, a group formed in August 2009, recently got a $1 million grant from the Obama administration for planning. Half the money must go to a link between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles Basin. The other half can be used to begin shaping high-speed corridors among the intermountain West’s metropolitan areas, most of them 400 to 500 miles apart.

Is High-Speed Rail Becoming More Viable In The Intermountain West?

If you look at a map showing federally designated high-speed rail corridors in the United States, the Great Plains and intermountain West look like some kind of giant inland sea. From Kansas City to Sacramento, it’s all blank.

But representatives from several of the West’s metropolitan areas – Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno, Las Vegas, and Phoenix – have set out to begin imagining a different transportation web across the West. To make high-speed rail work, say proponents, it can’t share tracks with lumbering freight trains or dawdling Amtrak trains. The new train will need their own dedicated routes.

The Western High Speed Rail Alliance, a group formed in August 2009, recently got a $1 million grant from the Obama administration for planning. Half the money must go to a link between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles Basin. The other half can be used to begin shaping high-speed corridors among the intermountain West’s metropolitan areas, most of them 400 to 500 miles apart.

“You can’t build a national high-speed rail system and exclude 10 states,” says Tom Skancke, executive director of the Las Vegas-based Rail Alliance. “It’s not just Eugene (Ore.) to Seattle, and San Diego to San Francisco, or Houston to Dallas. A national system has to include all states – just like the interstate highway system.”

Rail proponents often draw comparisons to interstate highways authorized by Congress in 1956 and 1957. They assume that high-speed rail, like interstate highways, must be a federal initiative, but possibly with foreign and private-sector investment.

“We are at the stage with high-speed rail where we were 50 to 60 years ago with the intestate highways,” says Gerry Carpenter, spokesman for the Utah Transit Authority.

Utah Transit operates 65 miles of light and commuter rail in the Salt Lake Valley and the broader urban corridor called the Wasatch Front. Another 70 are scheduled to begin operation in the next few years.

“We would argue that the time to plan is before you need it, not after you need it,” adds Carpenter. And, he insists, skipping over the intermountain West “would be a mistake, in our opinion.”

But clearly, the intermountain West and Great Plains lack one crucial feature common to the 11 high-speed corridors previously identified by the federal government: large populations.

Speaking at a recent conference held by USA Rail conference in Denver, Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, a mass transit advocacy group, said there is no clear formula for success, but generally high-speed rail works best when connecting large cities with other densely populated inner cities.

“If jobs and activities are spread out, then a high-speed rail doesn’t necessarily offer an advantage over driving,” she said. “The strength of a central business district is a good indicator of potential ridership.”

In her calculus, a city of 6 million beats two cities of 3 million. Phoenix, with a metropolitan area of 3.5 million, is the largest city in the intermountain West, followed by metropolitan Denver’s 2.8 million. By this measure, the West falls short.

Demographers, however, expect the Southwestern states to continue their torrid growth of recent decades. By 2035, according to these projections, Arizona’s population will expand by 5.6 million people, Nevada’s by 2.3 million, and Colorado by 1.5 million. Utah’s will grow 1.25 million. Most growth will occur in or near metropolitan areas.

Kitty Clemens, spokeswoman for the Denver Regional Council of Governments, says public officials firmly believe they need to plan for population growth, including many new residents shed by the country’s so-called Rust Belt regions.

The Western High Speed Alliance hopes to expand its network of cities. Skancke plans to reach out to Albuquerque and Boise. Each member has committed to $50,000 a year for three years. With this broadening coalition, the alliance hopes to get additional planning money from the federal government.

A first order of business will be to crunch ridership numbers, to understand how many people travel by plane between the various cities. High-speed rail proponents see their primary competition being short-haul flights of 400 to 500 miles, such as between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Airlines have indicated they’d be happy for help to ease the West Coast congestion.

Still, it all sounds terribly distant. Even in the nation’s congested areas, there’s just one high-speed train — Amtrak’s Acela Express, between New York City and Boston – and it’s not all that fast. It occasionally hits 150 mph. By most definitions, high-speed rail begins at 150 mph. Several countries — among them Spain, Japan and France – have trains that reach 200 to 300 mph.

But interest has grown rapidly in the last several years. Indicative was the 2008 approval by California voters of $9.5 million in bonding for the Los Angeles-Bay Area line.

The Obama administration has ladled out $8 billion for inter-city passenger rail, about half to high-speed corridors, followed by another $2.4 billion in assistance. Of that, $598 went to planning for the Cascadia line in the Pacific Northwest, with another $2.3 billion to California’s high-speed rail line. Actual construction in California might begin by 2012.

With federal assistance, Colorado recently completed a $1.6 million examination of the feasibility of high-speed rail parallel to I-25 and I-70, the state’s two primary corridors. The study found sustained and profitable ridership – but only after a steep capital investment of $20 billion to $25 billion.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has also penciled in links from Phoenix to Tucson, and another from Denver to El Paso, Texas.

BETTING ON LAS VEGAS

Las Vegas looks like the big bet. Several proposals have vied for favor. The prize would be the tourists in Southern California, who flood Interstate 15 on weekends.

Ironically, although founded as a railroad stop, Las Vegas lost rail service in 1997, when Amtrak yanked its Desert Wind. A proposal by, the Las Vegas Railway Express in partnership with Union Pacific, would restore that route with an emphasis on luxury – and, inside the Nevada line, gambling. It would not cut travel time.

But two rivaling proposals intend to whack travel time on the 270 miles of desert from five hours on congested weekends to two hours or less.

The DesertXpress, with new support from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, appears to be the fronrunner. Skancke says imminent environmental review could clear the project for construction beginning next year.

But the line, as now contemplated, has a fatal flaw: it dead-ends at Victorville, still 85 miles from Los Angeles. Part of the federal money must go to mapping the missing link to Palmsdale, where it is to connect with California’s high-speed rail.

“There are 8 million people each year who drive from California to Southern Nevada and three million people who fly,” said Skancke one recent evening, as he was driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. “That’s 11 million people a year who travel this corridor. There’s another five million people who travel each year before Los Angeles and Phoenix.”

Skancke says high-speed rail also will improve the tourism prospects for Colorado and Utah. A link between Denver and Salt Lake City, he says, makes them one destination.

Skeptics suggest a more raw political strategy, at least in the immediate future. Nevada, even with Reid counting noses, remains just two noses in the Senate and three in the House of Representatives. Other states don’t have that much more. By banding together, they might get Nevada across the finish line.

That same thinking also would seem to explain the proposal to identify a high-speed rail line linking Denver to El Paso. There was even talk of trying to link Cheyenne, Wyo., drawing in the votes of yet another Congressional delegation.

But costs, at least for the moment, seem overwhelming. States struggle to fill potholes, let alone build new infrastructure. And Tea Party-influenced Republicans now vow to fling cold water on the federal budget.

“Clearly, however, there is little public money to be had, especially in comparison to he estimated costs of these systems,” says Jaime Rall, a transportation analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, in a position paper. A stable funding source will further be needed for operations, she warns.

U.S. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood recently estimated the cost of a nationwide high-speed rail network at $500 billion. Portions of California’s high-speed rail will cost nearly $92 million per mile.

It sounds grim – but not so to high-speed rail proponents. In the West’s wide-open spaces, they image much lower building costs, especially on federal lands. Think of Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.

“If we are going to have transportation program that is going to be globally competitive, it has to include high-speed rail component,” says Skancke.

“I don’t think it will take 50 years to build,” he adds. “We have to get just one project up and running.”

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10 comments

  1. An examination of an Amtrak route map reveals that, west of the Mississippi River, there are several east/west Amtrak routes to the west coast. However, there are few (if any) north/south routes that offer opportunities for passengers to make convenient connections to other routes.

    For instance, it is impossile for a rail passenger to travel 450 miles from Denver to Albuquerque without taking a very inconveniet circuitous route to the west cost or all the way back to the Chicago hub.

    Western states should look to develop north/south connectivity between the existing east/west Amtrak routes. Such connection capabilities would greatly enhance the number of potential destinations that rail passengers could travel to within a reasonable time frame.

  2. High Speed Rail is another Welfare program that the U.S. can’t afford.
    Transportation money should be used to repair and improve bridges and highways and air traffic control.

  3. So these guys got a million dollars to utterly WASTE on such studies. Take the Vegas ride….you still have to drive over Cajon to V ville. And that’s the slow part of the drive. Now, if I’m the car and hit the flat and the gas pedal finally, d’ya think I’m gonna get off and wait to get on the train?
    Puff puff, koff, wow man.
    Denver to Abq? Over Monument Hill and Raton? Lower costs? The cost of moving the needed dirt would fuel the planes for decades….never mind the EIS and associated litigation delays over some sneezewort or locoweed.
    The people calling for high speed rail in the boonies are, in my view, delusional. Anyone with any experience railroading, actually moving trains, knows this.

  4. Agree with Dave, any one who backs this proposal doesnt understand simple engineering or economic concepts. I’ve lived my life in Germany, New York and the West. I loved public transport in the first two and hardly ever drove. That doesnt mean it will work here.

    The number one thing that makes fast trains work is an entire public transit system underneath them. You need cheap, clean, safe buses, subways, suburban trains, taxi’s, etc connecting to the main train station that make it easy to get from point a to b. Germany has this with great fast trains connecting cities. New York has this but without the fast trains but I would argue that it would work there between DC and Boston. In the west you have ZERO suburban train systems, ZERO bus services to rich or middle class suburbs, almost ZERO subway systems and ZERO high frequency cabs that will charge less than $5 to connect short gaps.

    The only alternate is driving to the train. Who is going to drive an hour to a train station, pay for parking, go through security with luggage, take the intercity train, rent a car to get to point b, when driving A to B is faster. If its anything longer than 250 miles then flying would be cheaper.

    As a country we need to spend the little funding we have to make cleaner cars and trucks for the west and create a futuristic driving system. The much denser NorthEast which has already invested in the support transport systems for 100 years can pursue high speed rail and I wish them luck.

  5. I agree with posters so far. John is correct..it works only in conjunction with other public transport.

    QUIT dreaming that hi-speed rail is gonna happen anywhere in the west outside of California.

    Was just in Ohio – the Governer there has cancelled study plans for a Cincinnati-Columbus-Cleveland route.

  6. Americans are just too dumb for high speed rail, and we certainly don’t deserve it. There. Study done. Now we can move on to contemplating Sarah Palin’s time with the “plus 8” brood. Much more vital to our well being.

  7. During the current decade, it is projected that global oil consumption will deplete traditional sources of relatively inexpensive petroleum, and fossil fuel production will have to shift to more costly, “unconventional” sources such as shale oils and tar sands. This will make airline and highway travel less affordable than we currently enjoy.

    This is why the United States needs to develop fuel-efficient transportation infrastructure to remain economically competitive.
    Unfortunately, the GOP does not care about the economic security and prosperity of the average American. The GOP only answers to the short-sighted financial interests of the Corporate Lobbyists who fund their campaigns. On this particular issue, it would be the Petroleum and Pipeline industries, supported by Convenience Store Operators, Airlines, Bus Lines, etc. etc. Anybody who financially gains by keeping America shackled to the gas pump during the coming era of rising energy costs.

    This is NOT good for the average US citizen. But since when did Wall Street ever care about the average US citizen?

  8. There are unlikely to be any long term environmental benefits from investment in high speed rail. For more food for thought see:
    http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=10170

  9. This one is so easy a caveman can figure it out, but I will break it down for those high speed rail supporters.

    AMTRAK
    Seattle, WA., to LA, CA. Cost $160.00, Shortest route $198.00 Round Trip one week stay

    Depart: Seattle @ 9:45AM Any Tuesday. Arrive next day Wednesday in LA @ 9:00PM (30 hours 25 minutes)

    Any Airline
    Seattle, WA., to LA, CA. Cost $158.00 Round Trip one week stay
    Depart: Seattle @ 6:40AM Arrive LA (same day just in case this escapes you) 9:14AM (2 hours 34 min)

    By car, courtesy of Google 18 hours 29 minutes.

    But let’s give high speed rail the benefit of the doubt. Seattle to LA 1,122 miles by high speed rail @ 150 miles per hour non-stop (like that is going to happen) 7 hours 30 minutes (approx).

    Add all the stops and you are probably talking 12 hours, no thanks.

  10. DesertXpress is NOT happening any time soon. by the time they’re ready to build, the Maglev project will have completed it’s environmental impact report and be ready to build as well.