SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: Maglev gone, but high-speed rail remains
Regional transportation planners focus funding, planning on local connections, not bullet train to Nevada
BY DUG BEGLEY
The Riverside Press Enterprise
Published: 21 January 2012 05:24 PM
Transportation planners once dreamed that super-fast trains would whisk Southern Californians at more than 300 mph across the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas.
But the idea of a magnetic levitation train didn’t stick around for long in regional transportation plans developed by the Southern California Association of Governments. Local planners instead are concentrating on connections within Southern California, so that when — and if — bullet trains ever come, conventional trains have a steady and direct route to get to them.
So 11 years after maglev made its debut in the regional transportation plan for Southern California, the agency overseeing the road and transit plan has deleted most of the Anaheim-to-Vegas route once proposed, saying maglev is not moving forward and is falling behind a competing project. As a result, the 2012 transportation plan under consideration by the Southern California Association of Governments does not include the $12.1 billion California-Nevada Super-Speed Train.
Without being in the plan, even as a concept, the project cannot receive federal funds to even study maglev as a possibility between the two states. A small portion of the route — a demonstration project between Anaheim and Ontario, will remain in the plan so officials can study its merit. But even that proposal, estimated to cost nearly $2.8 billion, faces significant hurdles.
The regional transportation plan is updated every four years and guides highway, rail, transit, bicycling and pedestrian planning for the next 30 years. All major transportation projects in Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura and Imperial counties are included. The nearly $525 billion plan focuses heavily on increasing maintenance of the existing road and rail network while adding toll lanes to many regional freeways and expanding bus and train service across the area.
Part of that approach includes spending money to make the region high-speed rail ready, said Highland Councilman Larry McCallon, former president of SCAG. Those local trains would connect to future high-speed stations, such as those planned as part of California’s Sacramento-to-San Diego system.
Maglev, an expensive system using electricity and magnets to move passenger cars, doesn’t figure into those plans anytime soon.
“We’re focused on right now,” McCallon said after a meeting last week in San Bernardino on the transportation plan. “Connectivity to high-speed rail, when and if it happens, is something we can do now.”
A public meeting on the transportation plan is scheduled for Monday in Riverside.
Metrolink, the commuter rail system, and its conventional diesel-powered trains carry about 7,000 Inland passengers each day to jobs in coastal counties.
“I wish they’d spend one-tenth of that (high-speed) money on more diesel trains,” said Jim Cuddie, 54, of San Bernardino.
Local officials in fact are asking for more than 20 percent of the $9 billion in high-speed rail money California voters approved in 2008 as part of Prop. 1A. McCallon said SCAG officials have concluded in the transportation plan that $1 billion should be spent in Southern California — and $1 billion in Northern California — getting passenger rail lines better connected to high-speed hubs.
The money would be used to improve service mostly along Metrolink’s Antelope Valley corridor north of downtown Los Angeles, and along the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo rail corridor that carries Amtrak trains. Some money could come to the Inland area via track and railcar improvements, and possibly even more trains scheduled to ferry passengers.
Better track and safety improvements could help those Amtrak and passenger trains travel at higher speeds; as fast as 110 mph potentially along the LOSSAN corridor.
“Is that high-speed?,” McCallon said. “To some people, that’s the first step.”
Developing maglev was never a quick fix to the area’s transportation needs, officials said. The $12.1 billion cost and 269-mile route between Anaheim and Las Vegas meant years of environmental planning, fundraising and construction. Only three maglev systems in the world, the longest a nearly 20-mile line in China, are ferrying paying passengers.
So maglev was destined to be a demonstration project, said Rich Macias, transportation planning director at SCAG. The idea received $45million in federal funding for studies. Since 2004, Las Vegas area transportation planners, led by the California-Nevada Super-Speed Train Commission, have drafted environmental and ridership analyses.
But nearly eight years of work has not produced a completed environmental impact statement necessary to secure federal approvals.
The project was envisioned as a mix of initial public funding for study, after which private backers built and operated the line.
In the past few years, the system has lost public support, namely from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who switched to backing a private plan by Vegas businesses to build a high-speed train between Southern Nevada and Victorville.
Desert Xpress, which would be privately funded but possibly jump-started by a large federal loan of up to $4.9 billion, was endorsed by Reid and is in the process of receiving federal approvals.
If Desert Xpress is built, its existence virtually kills maglev between Southern California and Las Vegas, some local officials and high-speed rail supporters said. It follows a growing pattern nationwide to favor high-speed rail systems similar to those in Europe that use high-speed trains that still travel on steel wheels along closed rail lines.
Federal officials ranging from Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to railroad administrators have said maglev isn’t a proven technology, said Tom Skancke, a Nevada-based high-speed rail advocate.
“They have all made it pretty clear there will not be that type of construction in the United States,” Skancke said. “It is simply too expensive to build and is not being embraced anywhere in the world. Everyone is doing steel wheels.”
Desert Xpress is included in the regional transportation plan. But it also faces questions about whether it will ever be built, and whether people would travel to Victorville to hop aboard, said Ontario Councilman Alan Wapner.
Wapner, a member of SCAG and the super-speed train commission, said maglev cannot happen if Desert Xpress does.
“But I’m not convinced it’ll ever get built,” Wapner said of Desert Xpress.
Despite most of the maglev route being removed from the plan, Wapner said the most important connection for the Inland area, from Ontario to Anaheim, remains.
“I just want to get Anaheim-Ontario,” he said. “If that’s maglev or high-speed rail or conventional rail. That is a very important connection for this area, however it happens.”
What: Draft Regional Transportation Plan workshop and public hearing.
When: Monday, 10 a.m. workshop; 1 p.m. public hearing
Where: Riverside County Administrative Center, 4080 Lemon St., Riverside