High-speed train proposal passes 'milestone'


To residents who have made Las Vegas their home for more than a decade, the idea of seeing a high-speed train between Southern Nevada and California might seem as likely as landing a professional sports team.

Both are grandiose proposals that, despite community backing, have gone unfulfilled.

But Tom Stone, president of DesertXpress Enterprises, said tonight he is confident his $4 billion project will be built because investors have already pumped $25 million into it. Also, he noted, the federal government recently approved the project’s draft environmental impact statement.

“That was a huge milestone,” Stone said. “We are a very well-funded team. No other project in the country has gone this far.”

Stone said his team studied what caused other proposed rail projects to stall in their tracks — questionable financial backing and overzealous ideas for routes.

“These projects have not been financially viable,” Stone said. “They never had the support. It was just an idea that didn’t have the leadership to get it done.”

If successful, the DesertXpress will be the first privately funded rail system in the nation.

Stone said that despite the economic downturn, investors continue to buy into his project.

Ed Brondo qualifies to be one of those longtime Las Vegas residents who doesn’t believe anymore. But during a public hearing attended by about 100 Las Vegans tonight, Brondo said he has faith in DesertXpress. He said the fact the draft study was approved has given him hope.

“I heard about this and said, 'It’s about time,’ ” said Brondo, a landscape architect who moved from Anaheim, Calif., to Las Vegas about 12 years ago. He still travels to his hometown about every three months. He is tired of the drive and said the whole flying process takes too long.

Like many of those who attended the hearing, Brondo doesn’t mind the train’s initial route. It would carry passengers to Victorville, Calif., a town 190 miles away and seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Stone said the train would connect with a voter-approved California system that would take passengers to a major train station in Palmdale, Calif. As California expands that rail system, riders will be able to make their way to major cities in both Southern and Northern California.

“This would be a huge convenience,” Brondo said.

If the DesertXpress system’s initial phase is completed in 2013 as proposed, passengers would be able to rent a car in Victorville to make it to their ultimate destination. Southern Californians, who make up about a third of the 38 million visitors to Las Vegas annually, could park their car at the Victorville station. Their baggage would be loaded on the train and they could check into their hotel at the station.

DesertXpress representatives also hope to have a stop in Barstow, Calif., but are awaiting approval from the Barstow City Council.

The stop in Victorville doesn’t bother the husband-and-wife team of Harry Sarvasy and Mary Frank. They have friends nearby who can pick them up. The elderly couple moved to Las Vegas five years ago.

“I don’t want to drive anymore and to fly anymore is a mess,” Frank said. “If I had a very fast train ride, I’d probably go every week.”

Stone said he doesn’t anticipate the cost of the trip to deter passengers. A round trip would cost about $110, plus a rental car for those who need one. He said a walk-up ticket with any airline will run at least $250 a round trip. However, a July trip to Orange County booked on Southwest Airlines costs about $139, according to the airline’s Web site.

Many in attendance tonight complained that security lines at airports are a bother and driving on Interstate 15, the main route between Las Vegas and Southern California, has become too dangerous.

“It’s gotten to a point where I don’t want to drive anymore unless I get a driver and that’s not going to happen,” said Tony Alamia, who travels to Anaheim every three weeks. “Driving, you don’t know when there’s going to be a wreck. Drivers are crazy.”

The project would give a shot in the arm to the economy, Stone said. During the construction phase, DesertXpress would hire between 1,700 and 3,000 workers. Ultimately the rail system would create between 500 and 700 permanent jobs.

Initially, there would be 16 trains, each with nine cars that hold a total of 675 passengers. A tenth car would be for entertainment. The train would make the one-hour, 20-minute trip every day. The company has yet to determine where the Las Vegas station would be located.

Even though Stone said the project has moved further along than any other, it still has competition.

Representatives of a proposed “maglev” or magnetic levitation train also attended the meeting. The maglev train would travel at 300 mph and go all the way to Anaheim.

Richanne Johnson said maglev backers hope to submit their environmental impact study to the federal government in one year. She said she hopes to have an approval similar to DesertXpress’ within the next two years.

“It will be interesting to see what happens,” Johnson said, noting that both systems cannot co-exist.

Despite whether maglev representatives are ready to play ball, DesertXpress officials said the train has already left the station.

The DesertXpress team will continue its public hearings tonight in Barstow and Thursday in Victorville.

 

Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at apacker@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.

 

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