Thursday, March 14, 2013

The XpressWest HSR and Victorville

Is the $5.5 billion federal loan for the XpressWest risky to taxpayers?

A rendering of an XpressWest train leaving Las Vegas.

The XpressWest high-speed rail project has a proposed western terminal station in Victorville which has long drawn dissents and opposition from various individuals. Now, Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, urging the U.S. Department of Transportation to deny a $5.5 billion federal loan toward the project. Their letter cites, "Promoters expect people to drive 50 to 100 miles to get to the station and then get off the freeway, park, and board the train for the final 175 miles to Las Vegas." While minimizing marketplace risk with taxpayer-funded loans is imperative, rejecting the loan based on these remarks alone would be counterproductive. One only needs to check out the entire master plan for the XpressWest. The future looks promising once the master plan is put into perspective; the completed project needs to be taken into consideration during loan negotiations. To be fair, risk with federal taxpayer money must be kept to a minimum and XpressWest must be able to show to the federal government that the rail line will operate at profit without spinning its ridership projection data. A route from Downtown LA into the Las Vegas Strip area would be able to show this.

While it's true that Victorville will serve as California's terminal station for the initial phase, a second phase includes an extension into Palmdale. From there, the line could utilize the existing rail corridor into LA. Electrification of the existing Metrolink Antelope Valley Line, a concept advocated by The Transit Coalition, combined with separated grade crossings and positive train control would potentially allow for a productive and profitable direct XpressWest connection to LA Union Station.

Even if trains took 60 minutes to get between LA and Palmdale by using the existing infrastructure (assuming Metrolink upgrades in lieu of high-speed rail), the Palmdale-to-Victorville HSR segment would take approximately 30 minutes while the Victorville-to-Vegas segment would take 80 minutes. Factor in a 3 minute stop at the intermediate stations and the XpressWest could have a 2 hour, 55 minute end-to-end trip time. These short trip times would allow XpressWest to compete well in the marketplace and would therefore reduce risks relative to the federal loan.

Additional track upgrades and straightening of the Antelope Valley Line corridor combined with a productive rail link through the Cajon Pass to the Inland Empire would cut the LA-Victorville segment trip time to under an hour which would establish an end-to-end trip time of 2 hours, 25 minutes. Could you imagine what this type of high-speed transit service can do the marketplace?

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