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High-speed train to Vegas gets boost

(The following article was posted on Gambling Magazine’s website on April 29.)

LAS VEGAS -- A futuristic train that would carry gamblers from Southern California to Las Vegas picked up speed Monday when a federal agency agreed to sponsor environmental studies for the route that would include a stop at Ontario International Airport.

The 269-mile, magnetic-levitation train route proposed by the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission and American Magline Group would cost about $10 billion to build, relying heavily on federal funding. Construction of the 40-mile section from Las Vegas to Primm, Nev., could begin next year, commission spokesman Tom Bradley Jr. said.

The commission has received $1.5 million from the federal government toward the cost of the environmental study and $650,000 from the San Bernardino Association of Governments, Orange County Transportation Authority and Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District, Bradley said Monday.

Backers have promoted the 200 mph maglev recently as a way to reduce congestion at regional airports, particularly John Wayne Airport in Orange County, and to ease gridlock on Interstate 15 through the Mojave Desert. A maglev trip from Anaheim to Las Vegas would take 86 minutes, with stops in Ontario, Victorville and Barstow.

At a briefing in Ontario earlier this month, Rep. Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino, told maglev supporters that the train is essential to solving gridlock between Las Vegas and the San Bernardino Valley.

The route would follow Interstate 15 from Las Vegas to Ontario but has not been determined beyond Ontario. It might follow Highway 91, said M. Neil Cummings, president of American Magline Group.

Fares for the entire route haven't been determined yet. A one-way ticket from Las Vegas to Barstow has been estimated at $50. Opponents say billions of dollars is too much to pay for a system that does not operate commercially anywhere. They also argue that taxpayers should not foot the bill for a train that will benefit Las Vegas casinos.

"If gamblers are going to be the big beneficiaries, the guys in Vegas need to pony up the money," said David Williams, vice president for policy of Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.

Maglev technology uses powerful magnets to hold trains off the track and propel them to 200 to 300 mph. A test track has been operating in Emsland, Germany, for more than a decade. A $1.2 billion, 20-mile route connecting the airport and downtown district in Shanghai, China, is expected to open this summer.

The Federal Railroad Administration has agreed to be the lead agency for an environmental study for the Vegas-Anaheim route, including a detailed analysis of the first 40 miles, from Las Vegas to Primm.

Agency officials did not return calls Monday. Bruce Aguilera, chairman of the Super Speed Train Commission, said federal sponsorship of the maglev study lends credibility to the project. Construction of the first 40 miles will require $1 billion in federal money and $300 million from private investors, Cummings said.

A spokesman for San Bernardino County's transportation agency said questions remain about whether maglev is the best use of public transportation funds. California and Nevada state transportation agencies will review the environmental documents, but neither will contribute any funding, officials said.

A spokesman for Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, said the congressman has supported the Las Vegas-Anaheim route because of the financial commitment promised from Nevada business interests in the past. Lewis sits on the House Appropriations Committee.

Lewis favors the project if it requires no federal subsidies to operate and can reduce congestion on I-15, Lewis spokesman Jim Specht said.

Maglev is a foolish use of public money if the goal is to make airports less crowded, said James E. Moore, professor of civil engineering and public policy and management at the University of Southern California.

"Conventional technology would be cheaper than maglev," he said. "There are institutional adjustments that would be cheaper. I still think cheaper matters." Fares might cover operating costs but not construction costs, he said. "Rail is a fiscal vampire, in my opinon," Moore said, adding, "Trains haven't been very cost-effective in the last half of the last century."

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

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