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Gibbons differs with tourist-train critics

Gov. Jim Gibbons begs to "respectfully disagree" with two Republican U.S. senators who say it is "silly" and "wasteful" to spend federal tax dollars on a historic Nevada train line.

On Tuesday, Gibbons, a Republican and often a critic of what he deems wasteful spending, defended the inclusion of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad in the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus law.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma included a $2 million expenditure on behalf of the historic rail attraction on a list of "silly or wasteful" stimulus projects.

"No family in America would support many of the programs we’ve highlighted," Coburn said.

Not so fast, says Gibbons.

The governor says the revival of the tourist rail line between Carson City and Virginia City after decades of dormancy has been a boost to the Northern Nevada economy.

"I respectfully disagree with their characterization," Gibbons said of Coburn and McCain. "Nevada has a tourist-based economy. These funds would be used for a project that will create jobs and bring more tourists to Nevada. Creating jobs and getting more tourists to Nevada are two of my highest priorities."

The V&T rail line was among the most profitable in the nation in the 1860s when it was a busy route for ore and mining supplies between the two Nevada towns.

The line was abandoned in 1938. In 1974 a private operator revived the line for a short span in Virginia City.

Efforts to revive it further as a tourist line gained steam in the 1990s. The project raised $5 million from room taxes in Carson City and an additional $6 million from sales taxes, according to backers. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., helped set aside $10 million in a 2005 federal highway bill for the train. The train started running on a 12-mile segment Aug. 14.

The stimulus money will help the Nevada Commission for the Reconstruction of the V&T extend the line 1.1 miles further into Carson City. The group is seeking another $30 million in stimulus money to go even farther into Carson City with the line and construct a new depot and maintenance facility.

The idea is to broaden the tourist appeal of the steam train, which is projected to run four trains per week for 24 weeks next year.

"It is an absolute perfect, perfect stimulus package," said Dwight Millard, chairman of the Carson City Convention and Visitors Bureau and the railway commission.

When the line reopened last summer, Millard said, it sold out with 144 available seats. Next year it might add a car and grow to 210 seats.

"It is absolutely super for the economy and Carson," he said.

The state’s stimulus-tracking Web site says 10.72 jobs were saved or retained through railway projects, which alludes to the V&T.

David Cherry, a spokesman for stimulus supporter Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., says Gibbons’ ardent defense of the V&T exposes how little the governor has done elsewhere to distribute stimulus money throughout the state.

"While Governor Gibbons and his team have made the V&T railroad project a priority, they have not focused equal attention or resources on Southern Nevada transportation needs," Cherry said. "Virginia City may be older, but the Las Vegas Valley remains Nevada’s economic engine, and our transportation network is a key component to tourism on the Strip."

Cherry highlighted statistics showing Nevada ranks 48th out of 51 stimulus-recipients in terms of creating jobs with stimulus dollars.

Others say Coburn and McCain were right to criticize the rail line.

Jim Lohse of the Web site www.renorailfans.com says the project’s price tag keeps going up and the economic benefits don’t justify the costs.

"No one has ever explained to me why a guy in Arkansas should have to pay for us to have a train in Carson City," Lohse said about federal spending on the train.

A spokeswoman for Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., defended the criticism from McCain and Coburn despite Ensign’s support for $2 million in federal funding to help a historic rail project in White Pine County four years ago.

"Senator Ensign believes there are many unbelievable examples of wasteful spending in Senator McCain and Coburn’s report and hopes this report encourages the administration to use the remaining stimulus funds wisely," Ensign spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said.

Ensign’s relationship with Coburn is strong. Earlier this year, after Ensign’s extramarital affair with a former employee became public, Coburn acted as an intermediary between Ensign and the woman’s husband, Doug Hampton, another former Ensign employee.

Lohse said even if the train does inspire tourists to visit the region and spend money in restaurants and hotels it does so at an exorbitant cost. "Somewhere there’s a point where it would just be cheaper to hand those people money to spend on their hotel."

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

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