Every few months, Sen. Harry Reid and his team ship out a memo unveiling the latest bureaucratic obstacle the DesertXpress high-speed train has cleared and then tell us their hope is to start laying down the tracks by -- pick a year.
The latest was most optimistic. The federal government will decide in six to nine months whether the steel-wheeled train to Victorville, Calif., is worthy of a $6 billion loan. If all goes smoothly, they said, we'll see construction as soon as late 2012.
It's no secret this project has been bashed by critics because of its terminus: Victorville, the high-desert community that is home to a federal women's prison and neighbor to the popular tourist destination of, um, Apple Valley? OK, maybe it is better known as the enclave located a convenient 85 miles from Los Angeles.
In any case, its supporters adamantly point out that the Las Vegas-to-Victorville line is only the first step of a much more complex network that will ultimately carry passengers to a major hub in Palmdale, Calif., where the tracks will take off north to San Francisco and south to L.A.
Skeptics have dubbed the DesertXpress the "Train to Nowhere," and without that crucial link to the web of lines in California, that truly could be the case. When those lines to more appealing California cities are built depends on where our neighboring state is in the process to build a high-speed rail line.
If we plan to begin building our bullet train next year, then California must also be nearing its start date. The success of the Las Vegas line has to depend heavily on the grand opening of the California system that will deliver us to true tourist destinations.
The excitement among DesertXpress supporters was palpable in their latest missive about loans and the upcoming construction schedule. So what about California high-speed backers? Let's check in to see if they are equally thrilled.
This isn't good.
If you are looking forward to taking a bullet train to San Francisco anytime soon, as in the next decade, do not read the San Jose Mercury News.
This is what that newspaper reported about the latest California High-Speed Rail Authority's meeting:
"Californians suffering from a massive case of 'sticker shock' over the new $99 billion price tag for the state's bullet train project got some more unsettling details Tuesday: The high-speed trains will attract fewer riders and less revenue than originally promised. And more than half of the money needed to build the rail line would come from federal funding that currently doesn't exist."
We are holding our breath in hopes our federal lawmakers will be kind enough to loan us a mere $6 billion, and California wants $50 billion from the federal government? Yikes.
The newspaper goes on to say that service between Anaheim and San Francisco -- one that would be popular among tourists and business people -- could begin in 2034.
The California authority plans to run its first line between Bakersfield and Fresno in the Central Valley, a route, by the way, which critics in California also are calling "a Train to Nowhere." The line then would be extended to either San Jose or the San Fernando Valley to generate funding to build the rest of the network.
The new date for linking San Francisco and L.A. is 14 years later than originally predicted.
And the California plans don't even mention the Victorville-Palmdale link, which is the vital link to Las Vegas.
Wait. Hold on, 2034? That is 22 years from now.
Take yourself back to 1990. Now that the highlights of the Runnin' Rebels beating up Duke in the NCAA championship have run through your head, think about this: Who would have thought back then that in 22 years, nearly 40 percent of Americans would say their next new vehicle would be a hybrid or something they have to plug in?
If a car sales person rolled out a Smart car, would you have chuckled?
The point is, modes of transportation that seem unimaginable eventually become a reality. Richard Branson's dream to one day fly passengers to the moon might seem ridiculous, but it is not unfathomable to think it really could happen in the next two decades.
Last year, urban land use expert Randal O'Toole visited Las Vegas to discuss his new book, "Gridlock." He told the gathering that by the time the high-speed train is built, it will be outdated and unpopular. That was when California was on schedule.
"America is on the verge of a new transportation revolution," he said. "That revolution is not going to be high-speed rail. It's not going to be light rail or street cars."
O'Toole said driverless vehicles will lead the way in this new revolution. Engineers with Stanford University already have tested an Audi TT at high speeds on hairpin turns leading up Pikes Peak in Colorado.
Barring political interference, driverless vehicles could be the norm by 2016, O'Toole said. That would be 18 years before California's high-speed network is built.
Europeans are testing an advanced system in which a truck travels along a freeway and sends signals behind it. The driverless vehicles link into the signal, and the operator can kick back and nap or read until their desired exit arrives. The driver then turns off the signal and takes over the wheel.
If the technology is proven, it might be a more appealing form of transportation, because travelers will not be stuck without a vehicle when they reach their destination.
Expect DesertXpress sponsors to continue boasting about their accomplishments, and that is fine. Unfortunately, their most significant hurdle sits to our west. And it is one major obstacle over which they have no control.
If high-speed rail sputters because of a lack of funding, both projects might find themselves in the rearview mirror of a driverless vehicle.
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