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Loan might make dream of high-speed train to Las Vegas a reality
By Christina Villacorte, Staff Writerdailynews.com
A luxurious - perhaps even decadent - bullet train speeding across the desert from the Golden State to Sin City?
It may not be just a mirage.
A group of private investors is making a pitch for a $6.9 billion high-speed rail line called XpressWest from Victorville to Las Vegas, and hopes to get a massive federal loan before the end of this summer.
It could be the first high-speed rail project developed in the country.
The idea is ambitious enough, but Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich literally wants to take it farther.
He is envisioning a 50-mile connection from Palmdale to Victorville via a high-speed train, that could be run by Metrolink, XpressWest or other providers, that would link up with existing rail lines throughout Southern California.
"It would have to be a public-private partnership," he said. "The goal is to have a seamless operation."
It would also connect at Palmdale with the state's massive $68 billion California High-Speed Rail network, still in the planning stages, that would link Los Angeles and San Francisco, and eventually include Sacramento and San Diego.
Developers of the XpressWest (formerly called DesertXpress) have their own vision of a seamless operation - a "Las Vegas experience" that starts before passengers even board the train.
That means hotel check-in services at the station in Victorville, like getting room keys and checking in bags, along with
the ability to book dinner and show reservations.
The ride itself - lasting about 80 minutes as the trains zip along the 185-mile route at speeds up to 150 mph - will offer entertainment options such as a "nightclub" social car.
"Because visitor trends and demographics clearly indicate the `Las Vegas Experience' cannot start early enough, XpressWest will be more than just a mode of travel," project organizers tout on their website.
In Las Vegas, they could disembark right on the Strip - planners are deciding whether to put the train station near Mandalay Bay or Bellagio and Caesars Palace - and begin gambling almost immediately.
The Victorville-Vegas round-trip fare: about $89.
XpressWest chief operating officer Andrew Mack said the proposal would boost mobility over a wide region.
"The overall vision is to develop and be part of a high-speed rail network that ultimately would serve Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas and northern California," he said.
But first, XpressWest's private investors - led by casino executive Anthony Marnell II, who helped build the Bellagio, Mirage and Wynn Las Vegas, among other resorts - would have to raise the funds to lay tracks from Victorville to Las Vegas.
So far, they have put together $1.4 billion.
They need $5.5 billion more, and quickly, if they are to meet their target completion date in late 2017 or early 2018.
Mack said they have applied for a loan through the Federal Railway Administration's Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program, which they intend to pay back with interest over 35 years.
Even though RRIF has about $35 billion in lending capacity, the largest loan that has ever been approved through it is only $560 million.
Nevertheless, Mack argues the federal government should put money into XpressWest, pointing out the project would create 80,000 direct and indirect jobs during construction and more than 2,000 permanent jobs afterwards.
"The significant amount of jobs that will be created - that cannot be understated," he said.
Mack also estimated XpressWest would divert about 2 million automobile trips each year on the congested I-15, saving 8.5 million gallons of gasoline and reducing air pollutants by up to 40 percent.
The organizers say trains would run every 20 minutes or even every 12 minutes when needed.
Antonovich hopes to merge the XpressWest project with existing proposals. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in the environmental analysis phase of a project to build a 63-mile High Desert Corridor from Palmdale to Apple Valley, passing through Lancaster, Adelanto and Victorville.
That route overlaps the connection sought by Antonovich, but experts have yet to decide whether the corridor should have a freeway, expressway, tollway, high-speed rail or a combination.
Also, money is tight.
"We have funds needed to complete the environmental documents ut we don't have funds available for future phases, like acquisition of property or construction," said High Desert Corridor project manager Robert Machuca.
"We understand that federal or state funds are not going to be enough to build it, so we're looking into public-private partnerships," he said.
Metrolink's existing Antelope Valley line stretches from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles through Burbank, the northeast San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita and out to Palmdale.
Convinced that Palmdale should link up with Las Vegas, Antonovich endorsed XpressWest to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood during a meeting in Washington, D.C., in June.
He also got the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to formally express support for the project and its federal loan application in July.
"It makes economic sense," Antonovich said.
But Mack said the project is not dependent on the Palmdale connection.
"Just to be clear, our project from Victorville to Las Vegas is viable on its own, if none of the other projects were to happen in the future," Mack added. "What Palmdale gets us is the best of both worlds."
Whether the High Desert Corridor and California High Speed-Rail network are completed remains in question, however, because of funding shortfalls.
In the case of the latter project, controversies over planning have also eroded once-enthusiastic public support.
Still, Antonovich's transportation deputy Michael Cano, touts the prospect of Palmdale someday becoming a "crossroads of transit."
"You'd have a potential of having Palmdale be a future hub, with all the rail lines meeting in the Antelope Valley," he said. "This would invigorate the airport, and draw businesses that want to locate in a new thriving economic environment."
The estimated $89 fare is more expensive than some plane tickets on certain dates, but Mack insisted it remains competitively priced. It's also more expensive than putting gas in a car, but that would require driving at least four hours to Las Vegas.
Passengers would already be forced to drive to Victorville - about 100 miles from the San Fernando Valley - just to board the bullet train, at least until a Palmdale link is built.
Even so, Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates on transportation issues, believes a bullet train would be successful.
"If the train were an option, I would definitely take the train versus a plane," said Reed, who flies to Las Vegas every few months.
"I wouldn't have to worry about it being full, getting an aisle seat, or getting shaken half to death by turbulence."