Bill redirects federal funds

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid fulfilled a promise Wednesday by redirecting $45 million originally set aside to build a magnetic levitation train between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles area.

Reid reallocated the funds to major highway projects as part of a federal jobs bill, saying it would put people to work immediately. Reid recommended the funding go to the Nevada Department of Transportation to widen the connector road between McCarran International Airport and the Las Vegas Beltway.

President Barack Obama must sign the bill.

Reid, originally a proponent of the maglev train, switched alliances last summer to the steel-wheeled, Victorville-bound DesertXpress project after growing frustrated with the maglev's slow progress. He announced last year that he would reallocate the $45 million he secured for the high-speed train.

Reid indicated he has spoken to representatives of the state Transportation Department as well as government entities within Clark County, and they all agreed to redirect the funding.

"We agreed that redirecting the funds from Maglev to NDOT, with the intent that the money be applied to widening the airport connector at McCarran and 215, will have the biggest immediate impact for job creation and relief from traffic congestion," Reid said. "I urge the governor to put these funds to work immediately to protect Nevadans' jobs and ensure the completion of a project that will result in reduced congestion for a faster, safer commute."

If Obama signs the bill, crews will be put to work on a new interchange linking the Las Vegas Beltway and McCarran, a priority project for the Regional Transportation Commission. According to the county's public works division, the $132 million interchange project is necessary for operations at the airport and needed to provide a more efficient north-south corridor between residential neighborhoods and employment centers.

Gov. Jim Gibbons, a maglev supporter, has strongly opposed Reid's idea to redirect the funding. Gibbons' office consistently has argued that it would take an act of Congress, literally, to funnel the monies elsewhere. Reid representatives said that is exactly what Wednesday's action was, an act of Congress.

"The $45 million is money he (Reid) secured, and he just wanted to make sure we wouldn't lose the money," said Jon Summers, a Reid spokesman. "They (maglev officials) haven't made progress to speak of, and in a time we need jobs and have $45 million on the table, we might as well use it."

Mark Fierro, who represents the maglev company, scoffed at the idea of a road project putting a significant dent in the state's unemployment rate. Had Reid not interfered with the maglev train for the past year, the company would be preparing to lay down vertical steel, he said.

"This would have been so incredibly game changing. We wouldn't be telling them (steel workers) that they're going to work on Monday. We'd be telling them they're going to work Monday for the next five years," Fierro said of putting construction crews back to work. "This project is so massive, the first thing we would have had to do is put in parking lots (for workers)."

Gibbons' office had little to say about the reallocation of the federal money and suggested that Reid might be deceiving Nevada residents.

"There appears to be some confusion inside the (Washington, D.C.) Beltway about the $45 million for the road project and the $45 million for the maglev," said Gibbons' spokesman Dan Burns, who declined to elaborate. "At this point, the state of Nevada is not sure."

Burns also questioned whether Nevada's Transportation Department was truly onboard with Reid's plan.

Scott Magruder, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Transportation, said the agency didn't take a position on the matter.

"We did not ask for this or push for the redirection, but this is a viable project," he said. "Any money that comes in to create construction jobs is good news for Nevada."

Reid's announcement was not a surprise to maglev supporters, who vowed to move forward with their plans to build the high-speed train with or without the senator's support.

"We're as alive as we were two days ago. We're going to get that money," Fierro said. "Irrespective, we're moving forward. We're in competition with a train that goes half the speed and stops in Victorville."

In February, the American Magline Group announced that Chinese investors were willing to loan the maglev project $7 billion with the knowledge that if the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission is unable to pay it back, federal officials will. Summers said Reid has never taken a position on the proposal.

The magnet-powered train would be a $12 billion endeavor funded by private and public money. The train would ultimately travel between Las Vegas and Anaheim in about 81 minutes at speeds up to 300 mph. The DesertXpress would cost about $4 billion and ferry passengers to Victorville, Calif., in 84 minutes, traveling at speeds of up to 150 mph.

Summers said technology makes no difference to Reid; the senator simply wants to see a Nevada-California train built.

"The maglev is three times more expensive than the DesertXpress and it hasn't been making any progress," Summers said. "The DesertXpress is privately funded and it's moving along. At the end of the day, technology doesn't matter to him. It's time to get it done."

The DesertXpress has not publicly stated the financial status of the project. Summers said he suspects representatives are waiting until an environmental impact study is completed.

Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at apacker@ or 702-387-2904.