High-speed rail goes off track
Caught in a political game, XpressWest appears to have little hope of gaining funding
XpressWest executives recently acknowledged news that critics of the project have been waiting for: A review of the company’s $5.5 billion federal loan application to build a high-speed rail line between Southern California and Las Vegas has been suspended.
Company officials say the project remains under review, but there seems to be little hope that it will get back on track.
“We believe high-speed rail in the western United States is both feasible and desired,” XpressWest representatives said. “We await further information and direction from the administration. We at XpressWest have always known that a project of this magnitude would undergo painstaking and diligent review.”
But even the project’s most ardent supporters admit that the chance of loan approval, after more than two years of review, is dim.
The Federal Railway Administration has offered no details about the loan review it began in late 2010, but experts familiar with the process say the biggest issues are ridership forecasts and the expectation that Southern Californians would be willing to drive to Victorville, Calif., to take a train to Las Vegas.
XpressWest developer Anthony Marnell has said he expected most of the train’s passengers to come from the Inland Empire, a short drive from Victorville. XpressWest also inked a partnership with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority that would have extended the line from Victorville to downtown Los Angeles, which would have grown the train’s potential Southern California market and made it more appealing for Las Vegans.
But a March letter to the Department of Transportation from Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions seemed to have driven a stake through the heart of the plan. The Republicans, both ranking members of their congressional budget committees, questioned XpressWest’s ability to repay a loan.
The Department of Transportation and Federal Railway Administration, at the urging of the Government Accountability Office, suspended the loan review. Ryan and Sessions wrote another letter to the GAO’s comptroller general, thanking him for addressing the issue.
So where does that leave high-speed rail for Las Vegas?
It appears Ryan and Sessions have delivered a fatal blow to the concept.
Can XpressWest regroup? Or will the company lose the millions of dollars it has invested in the project? Will private investors step up to keep the plan alive?
Is there an alternative route that isn’t Victorville-dependent? And would California’s high-speed rail supporters come to XpressWest’s aid, knowing that their intrastate project could be the next to fall into a political minefield?
How will the Western High Speed Rail Alliance’s long-range plan for a train network across the West be affected? Will proposals for a magnetic-levitation train resurface?
There are more questions than answers.