Four years ago, sponsors of the DesertXpress high-speed train between Las Vegas and Victorville, Calif., proposed to build the project with $3.5 billion raised entirely from private sources.
While sensible observers might have warned that modern rail lines rarely attract more than half their estimated ridership (see the findings of Oxford University professor Bent Flyvbjerg), and that costs of such projects sometimes exceed projections, who could object to private entrepreneurs risking their own capital -- and standing to rake in the profits if they succeeded?
Fast forward four years, and the current proposal is for the federal government -- already borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends -- to pick up most of the cost of a project designed to bring Los Angeles tourists (who would have to drive as far as Victorville, then park) the 188 remaining miles to Las Vegas.
Technically, this would be a loan. Like the one that financed the Las Vegas Monorail, only much bigger.
Of course, the estimated construction cost has increased over the past four years by 85 percent, to $6.5 billion.
The current proposal envisions fund coming from the Federal Railroad Administration, which generally provides financing for new freight spur lines, reconfiguring switching yards, things like that. The loan in question would be four times larger than all the loans the agency has made, nationwide, over the past 10 years.
To make all this pencil out as viable, DesertXpress sponsors have to assume about two-thirds of all current Southern California visitors to Las Vegas -- both those who drive and those who fly -- would switch to taking the train, paying $110 for a round-trip ticket.
Furthermore, DesertXpress estimates it can build its line for about $35 million per mile. The job can be done for less than the $55 million to $133 million per mile which the World Bank considers normal, promoters explain, because the new train would use government-owned right-of-way along Interstate 15, further avoiding steep climbs and sharp turns.
However, NDOT estimates adding an extra lane in each direction to the existing interstate would cost only $5 million per mile -- $750 million to make I-15 a six-lane highway from the state line to Victorville. And some of that would presumably be recoverable from truck taxes.
Again, if private entrepreneurs want to risk their own capital, more power to them. But the 2010 World Bank report warns ticket sales on high-speed rail lines are lucky to cover operating costs: Governments "should also contemplate the near certainty of copious and continuing budget support for debt."
The question then becomes: Is this a sensible use of federal taxpayer funds?
The answer seems obvious.