Sunday, June 8, 2008

Reid Gets $45 Million for Maglev

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

The transportation bill was signed by President Bush last week and it included $45 million for Sen. Harry Reid's maglev project to link Vegas to Anaheim:

Derided by critics as pie in the sky, the train would use magnetic levitation technology to carry passengers from Disneyland to Las Vegas in well under two hours, traveling at speeds of up to 300 mph. It would be the first MagLev system in the U.S.

The money is the largest cash infusion in the project's nearly 20-year history. It will pay for environmental studies for the first leg of the project.

It doesn't make much sense for the US government to be proceeding with maglev studies. It's an extremely expensive and untested technology that isn't even necessary to provide high speed rail service on that corridor - off the shelf technology can accomplish speeds that would cut the drive from SoCal to Vegas in half (and cut it by 3/4 on the busy weekends).

Even a revival of Amtrak's Desert Wind train would be sensible. It was killed in 1997 due to "low ridership" during the cheap oil era but as Trains4America points out that rationale might not hold today.

Still, at least Reid took the lead in securing federal money for a Nevada-California HSR project, even if we here at the HSR blog believe it would be wiser to link a non-maglev HSR line to the California project at either Mojave or Palmdale Airport. Why haven't California's powerful senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, worked to provide similar federal funding for our project? Even $45 million for studies would not only help the CHSRA's work, but would be a signal that the Congress really will help pay for the cost of our HSR line. That would ease the "financial risk" concerns the State Senate and others have pointed out. Senators Boxer and Feinstein could also play a key role in brokering an agreement between Union Pacific and the CHSRA on ROW.

Once again political leadership is absent, seemingly blind to the crisis of high energy costs and unserious about providing affordable, sustainable alternatives.


Rafael said...

To be charitable, Sen. Reid has claimed the $45 million were actually part of a 2005 bill but were never appropriated because of a drafting error. That kind of thing makes a Senate majority leader look like an amateur.

In 2005, Gov. Schwarzenegger had just postponed the HSR bond measure and he wasn't exactly eager to put it on the ballot at a later date, either. Exasperated with the bottleneck that is I-15, the private DesertXPress consortium announced a project based on 125mph steel wheel diesel train technology, with tracks terminating in Victorville - not exactly gee-whiz technology but it wasn't going to cost taxpayers a penny.

Of course, that prevents politicians like Sen. Reid from securing Congressional earmarks for it. Earmarks and campaign contributions go hand in hand. Small wonder then that he prefers the snazziest, most expensive system possible. Technology risk? He's from a gambling state, risk doesn't faze him. Plus, it's not his money at stake.

As for Sen. Feinstein and Boxer, Rep. Costa and others: there is some value to their keeping their powder dry. After all, they want to get $10 billion, not a measly $45 million. Timing is everything.

If California voters approve the HSR bond measure in November, it's possible SCAG will lose interest in maglev. With Anaheim mayor Curt Pringle on the CHSRA board, the focus is already shifting to the thorny issue of how HSR of any type will coexist with freight and commuter rail in the narrow LOSSAN corridor.

Maglev tracks are much wider than standard gauge, so it would have to be implemented on an aerial structure. As anyone familiar with BART knows, those are really expensive in earthquake country.

If SCAG essentially abandons maglev, a proposal to link Las Vegas to the California system (see map) would allow Sen. Reid to justify an about-face. After all, it's not his fault the $45 million was wasted if it's California that walks away.

A chenage of heart would be especially valuable because McCurran airport is forecast to hit capacity in 2014. The relief airport in the Ivanpah Valley has been delayed until after 2018.

Thanks to the DesertXPress consortium, which would presumably be interested in chipping in, a lot of the EIR/EIS work needed for a steel wheels line along I-15 has already been done, so with a lot of elbow grease it might be possible to complete a link to Palmdale Airport sooner than that.

Of course, the value to Nevada would only be greater if the entire California system actually gets built - enter Harry Reid, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to secure federal matching funds for both states' projects. California could choose to prioritize spending of matching funds on the Los Angeles to Mojave segment to relieve LAX.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful project for California. We certainly do need a faster, more convenient way for our State's gambling populous to make their weekend trips to Las Vegas and spend whatever disposable income they have these days into the coffers of Las Vegas hotels and increase the State of Nevada's share of the take.

That's our congress in action. Reid is a Democrat, so we can put the blame on both parties. Our taxes in action. Boy is this a worthwhile subsidy.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Unfortunately we know all too well what "keeping one's power dry" produces in the Congress - nothing at all. No, Feinstein and Boxer need to step up now, otherwise HSR may die a death by a thousand paper cuts.

Feinstein took the leadership ten years ago in negotiating the Cal-Fed water agreements in the Delta, which brought together federal, state, and private stakeholders.

Why won't she do the same here? HSR cannot be built without the feds, from funding to their regulatory power over Union Pacific and BNSF. Feinstein has credibility with all these groups and is ideally positioned to be the focal point, and if she could secure a mere $45 million for engineering studies, it would signal to everyone involved that she and the Congress are dead serious about making this happen.

Without that sense of seriousness the state legislature, UP, Congress, and yes, the CHSRA lack a necessary sense of urgency.

As to anon - I'm not saying Reid is right to want to develop HSR on the LA-Vegas corridor. I think we should focus on the already identified HSR corridors of which LA-Vegas isn't one of them. But he IS showing that there is a role for the feds to play right now, at a moment when our HSR project is nearing the rocks. And by his action and their inaction, Reid is making Feinstein and Boxer look bad. They're not providing the leadership they should be.

Rafael said...

@ anonymous -

people are entitled to spend their hard-earned money any way they like. While you're cleaning up America's act, perhaps you'd also like to bring back prohibition - after all, some people are alcoholics. The government must protect us from our wicked, wicked selves!

No-one suggested a cent of California state tax revenue should be spent on a steel wheels HSR spur to Las Vegas. Indeed, as Robert pointed out, such a spur is not even anyone's formal plan at this point. I was merely thinking out loud, exploring a way for California to secure federal matching funds for its project by partnering with Nevada.

Enlisting Sen. Reid to the cause would help quite a bit, if only because it would eliminate competition between two high speed rail proposals in the already heavily congested LOSSAN corridor. If he actively endorses federal matching funds for the California HSR project in some context, so much the better.

Anonymous said...


Please don't you put your spin on my remarks.

I agree 100% that people can spend their earnings in any legal way they choose.

I have never been any kind of supporter of prohibition on alcohol or gambling. I certainly don't condone our Federal government subsidizing gambling, which is what this really is all about.

Wyh is our State willing to push this income across a state line into Nevada? Why don't we have big time casinos in our state?

Also, remember California tax payers are Federal taxpayers also. So this is already a Federal subsidy that will enhance Nevada on this project, but certainly not California.