Over the last year or so, since the passage of Prop 1A and the election of a high speed rail-friendly president, there has been a surge of interest in high speed rail across the country, and new organizations and consortiums have come together to propose new projects - as well as to revive ones that had been left for dead (looking at you, Florida).
One of these groups is the "Western Rail Alliance," a semi-official group that includes land-use planners from Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. Late last week this group unveiled their list of proposed routes, one of which includes California:
The idea, in a nutshell, is that planners in each state can best negotiate rail routes within their cities and have the expertise to find funding to develop high-speed rail between those cities. The current participants in the alliance are the local RTC [in Clark County, NV], the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County in Reno, the Maricopa Council of Governments in Phoenix, the Utah Transit Authority in Salt Lake City and the Denver Council of Governments. The organizations also have made overtures to the Mid-Region Council of Governments in Albuquerque, but it has not signed on to the alliance yet.
They also have made contact with planning organizations in Tucson and Boise as potential future members.
Right now, the alliance is working toward turning itself into a legal non-profit organization. It also will move toward expanding membership to include prospective suppliers and service providers that could be a part of the effort to build high-speed rail in the Southwest.
Recently, Skancke made the first public presentation about the alliance, speaking to a lunch meeting of the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.
At that session, Skancke outlined the first five routes the alliance will focus on: between Los Angeles and Phoenix; between Las Vegas and Phoenix; between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City; between Salt Lake City and Denver; and between Salt Lake City and Reno.
Now, before you all run off to the comments to criticize this, let's be clear: these routes aren't going to be built anytime soon. They don't appear on the USDOT HSR map, nor are they likely to anytime soon. This certainly isn't going to get funded in any official way, aside from very preliminary studies, for many years.
And that's as it should be. Of these five routes, only LA-Phoenix made it onto The Transport Politic's Interstate Rail Network proposal (in the last of four phases). There are many higher priority corridors that should come before these five.
Yet that shouldn't cause us to dismiss the concept out of hand. My interest in high speed rail isn't specific to California, although this blog is. I quite strongly believe this country should invest in building a national HSR network, proceeding first along the highest priority corridors and over the next 2-3 decades, filling in the gaps so that by 2040 or so, there would be a much improved passenger rail network that could get one from coast to coast faster than you can today. Doesn't mean you'd have a 220mph bullet train going from SF to NY, but one could stitch together a network of long-distance trains that could have faster and more reliable travel times than Amtrak's current routes.
In any case, it can't hurt to take an evening and consider what the Western Rail Alliance is proposing. LA-Phoenix could be a very valuable route for California, depending on the alignment. Any LA-PHX train would include stops in San Bernardino and Palm Springs, reaching a part of the state with a growing population. The train could follow Interstate 10 east toward Phoenix over a relatively easy alignment, with only the climb out of the Coachella Valley posing engineering challenges. Or it could continue southeast to the Imperial Valley, which sports the highest unemployment rate of any California county at 30%, hit Yuma, and then find a path back into Phoenix. This route would be less direct and therefore more costly and with a higher travel time, but there's pretty much nothing between Indio and Buckeye along the I-10 route, so it's worth at least a study.
Las Vegas-Phoenix is already witnessing a major transportation project, the Hoover Dam Bypass, scheduled for completion next year. Aside from Kingman and Wickenburg, this route would also be running through mostly empty land.
Las Vegas-Salt Lake City has the benefit of serving more actual settlements between its two endpoints, including the rapidly growing Utah city of St. George, along with several towns scattered along Interstate 15 before the Wasatch Range metropolis at Provo (and giving a boost to cities just beyond the urban edge, like Nephi). Salt Lake City-Reno would also connect some smaller towns, such as Wendover, Elko, and Battle Mountain, but would otherwise be passing through completely empty land. Would be interesting to see how fast you could crank up the trainsets over the Bonneville Salt Flats.
The most intriguing, and almost certainly the most difficult, is a proposed Salt Lake City-Denver HSR route. Perhaps this one will appeal to the people who think the Grapevine should have been the alignment for the SF-LA route. If you think the Grapevine is easy for HSR, you're gonna love the Rocky Mountains!
An earlier Las Vegas Sun article examined one subset of the SLC-Denver route, the I-70 Coalition which has been proposing passenger rail as a solution to the traffic problems through the Rockies on Interstate 70, especially from Denver to the ski resorts in winter. There's been some discussion of maglev for this corridor, but no firm plans as of yet.
As a relatively young person, I might actually live to see some of these projects get built. As China pours hundreds of billions of dollars into their HSR system as an economic stimulus measure, it's not silly to start thinking on a nationwide scale for HSR. Perhaps none of these corridors are yet deserving of federal money, which for now needs to go to the higher priority corridors. But if the western states wanted to start planning these routes, and were willing to start funding it themselves, I wouldn't object. Better we start thinking about this now, instead of continuing to delude ourselves into thinking the status quo is tenable.