WASHINGTON — With glitzier modes of passenger rail seemingly having fallen by the track, Rep. Dina Titus says Las Vegas should look into what it might take to restore conventional Amtrak service to Southern California.
Titus said she’ll be shopping the idea to local leaders and economic development consultants this fall.
She floated the plan last week when the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved an Amtrak bill focused mostly at shoring up service along the Northeast Corridor, where government-subsidized rail makes money.
“The Southwest is getting overlooked,” the Las Vegas Democrat said in an interview. “My proposal is let’s do a study to see if it makes sense to put rail back in. You have to start somewhere.”
Amtrak dropped its Desert Wind route between Los Angeles and Ogden, Utah, via Las Vegas and Salt Lake City in 1997. Titus confessed she never boarded the Desert Wind, “but I would ride it now.”
“There have been passenger studies, ridership studies in the past but since then our population has grown and our tourist population has grown by 10 million,” she said. Titus added tourists from Europe “like to ride the train.”
Titus said she planned to meet with House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and to run the idea by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who might take some persuading.
Reid said this summer he is committed to high-speed rail, and Amtrak “is not high-speed rail.”
“It’s an antiquated system, and I’m glad we have it, but it’s not very good,” he said at an appearance in Las Vegas.
Several projects have been put on the table since Amtrak dropped Las Vegas, but none have taken hold.
A plan to employ magnetic levitation technology to whisk rail passengers between Las Vegas and Southern California was delivered a major blow after Reid in 2009 withdrew his support for it and federal money subsequently dried up.
Reid instead backed the high-speed Desert Xpress whose investors included figures in the casino industry and longtime Reid friend Sig Rogich. But the project, later renamed Xpress West, has been unable to secure a $5.5 billion federal loan.
In recent interviews, Reid insisted XPressWest is not dead and he has discussed it with high-level members of the Obama administration. Officials at the Federal Railroad Administration did not respond to a query this summer whether the project’s loan status had changed.
Another firm, Las Vegas Railway Express, said late last year it was seeking partners for a strategy to run passenger rail between Las Vegas and Southern California.
For passenger rail to advance in Southern Nevada, state and local interests would have to spearhead it, much as officials along the Gulf Coast have taken initiative in seeking to restore service between Orlando, Fla., and New Orleans that was knocked out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
Amtrak has little money beyond what it needs to maintain its current system and perhaps make small improvements to its profitable segments, Jeans-Gail said. Congress has not been ambitious about funding rail, he added.
“Amtrak, the way it is currently run, is not going to take the initiative to build a line, so it’s going to have to be a state-led process,” he said. California, which is pursuing its own long and costly high-speed rail, wouldn’t be expected to be much help, he said.
One possibility, he said: “They could approach XPressWest for a public-private partnership.”
“Its always heartening to hear people recognize the importance of rail,” Jeans-Gail said. If all funding and permissions miraculously fell in place, Las Vegas service could be restored in five years.
But he cautioned, “you shouldn’t get that excited.” The levels of support envisioned in Congress “just doesn’t provide that much funding for the states to do it.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.