The story is sorted out in great detail in The Hill. This a federal issue about transportation in interstate commerce. This is the kind of thing truckers and airline lobbyists just hate to hear discussed in a serious professional tone. That influence by special interests is the sole source of fiscal concerns.
Competition over the Southern California-Las Vegas corridor has pulled the Nevada congressional delegation, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D), into debate over travel into the casinos of Las Vegas, one of the world’s biggest tourist destinations.
Critics say the fight also spotlights another example of Congress spending taxpayer dollars on parochial interests.
The focus is on a bill, passed 422-1 vote by the House last month, to correct drafting errors in the $287 billion 2005 highway legislation. Unlike the 2005 law, the provision would direct $45 million to an assessment of a “magnetic levitation” rail project, referred to as Maglev, that would use advanced technology to move trains at up to 300 miles per hour. The measure includes new language that states that the project would extend to Anaheim, Calif., the same 200-mile stretch as its competitor.
House and Senate aides say that language was inadvertently omitted when Congress drafted the 2005 highway law, making the project compete for annual appropriations that it did not receive. With no federal funding, the project stalled and opened the door for a rival company, DesertXpress Enterprises, to move forward with plans to give passengers an option besides flying or driving on a congested highway.
The provision in the pending bill, which the Senate has not yet voted on, would give new life to the Maglev project and accelerate a battle with DesertXpress, which is privately financing a high-speed train projected to travel at up to 125 miles per hour and bring passengers from the Los Angeles area to Las Vegas in an hour and a half. DesertXpress says regardless of the pending language, it is moving full-speed ahead and hopes the $3.5 billion project will be done by 2012.
“We have to do this without public dollars because the public dollars are not there to build it,” said Tom Stone, president of DesertXpress. “Our view is we don’t need [federal funding], and we don’t want it.”
M. Neil Cummings, president of the American Magline Group, which is pushing the Maglev project, said a majority of the $12 billion needed to create his rail line would come from the private sector.
“It’s not the future,” Cummings said of the DesertXpress project. “Maglev represents the future of high-speed ground transportation as a way to move people quickly, safely and in an environmental friendly way as we move ahead in the next century.”
Both projects are in their early stages. The $45 million in the bill would be used for an environmental impact study along the corridor, a first step for construction of the Maglev project. There already is a separate environmental study underway for the DesertXpress project. Analysts say the winner will be the project that is the most financially viable and has the support of federal agencies.
And now the part you have been waiting for.
The Bush administration argues that Maglev projects are too expensive, and should not be done at the expense of other transportation needs.
But Reid and his House counterparts, including Shelley Berkley (D) and Jon Porter (R), are not ruling out either project and are trying not to take sides.
“Personally, I think from tax dollars, it makes sense to build a high-speed train from California to Nevada,” said Porter, adding that he wants a rail line there as quickly as possible.
Sen. John Ensign (R) appears to be the Nevada member most skeptical of the Maglev project. He raised deep concerns in a 2005 letter about an estimate that the project could cost $25 million per mile.
“The privately financed is in general the best way to go,” Ensign told The Hill last week. “There just isn’t enough money to do all the rail projects that we want to do around the country.”
To translate Ensign into ordinary English, “There’s not enough airline and highway payoff money to fund necessary transportation projects.”