VEGAS INC Coverage
It’s clear from the volume of email in my inbox and messages left on voicemail that people are genuinely concerned about whether DesertXpress, the high-speed rail proposal that would link Las Vegas with Victorville, CA, has a snowball’s chance in the Mojave Desert of success.
Earlier this month, the US Department of Transportation gave the word that DesertXpress Enterprises, the private company that’s planning the 185-mile, $6 billion project, has cleared all the environmental hurdles necessary to begin work. Although the release of the agency’s so-called “record of decision” is a major step toward drafting detailed plans that will lead to construction, there’s still one more major approval necessary to get things rolling: DesertXpress needs money—lots of it.
With the record of decision in hand, the company next goes to the federal government to borrow money, through the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program, which provides direct federal loans and loan guarantees to finance development of railroad infrastructure. If the feds OK the loan, it would be the biggest one ever approved for that program. Since 1998, when the program was initiated, just more than $1 billion in loans have been approved on 28 rail projects. DesertXpress is seeking $4.9 billion.
The Federal Railroad Administration will review the economic soundness of the project and the creditworthiness of the applicant. The evaluation will include the financial viability of the project, including the capitalization plan; financial projections of the borrower; the business plan, which includes projections on ridership, financial modeling and an assessment of the future ability of the company to pay off the loan; project risks and, finally, a cost-benefit analysis.
What are the chances the loan is approved? It’s hard to gauge with someone as powerful as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the picture.
One would have to think that any serious review of ridership would include the million-dollar question every critic asks: Victorville?
I’ve perused DesertXpress’ 73-page ridership review, which includes a rider and financial study prepared by New York transportation engineer URS in 2005, a follow-up report prepared in 2008 by Cambridge Systematics Inc., of Cambridge, MA, and an audit and review for a prospective investor by London-based Steer Davies Gleave.
The report is filled with documentation on how the high-speed rail line could capture market share from automobile traffic running on heavily traveled Interstate 15 and from travelers who fly to Las Vegas from several Southern California airports. The final estimate was that about 22 percent of those coming to Las Vegas would consider taking the train if it were available. Part of the data was based on surveys of potential riders. But the reports are unclear as to what was asked in those surveys.
The Cambridge report had some very telling comments about the initial URS study.
“While it is likely that the introduction of new high-quality service such as that envisioned by DesertXpress will induce a small number of intercity trips between Southern California and Las Vegas, we’re not convinced the day trip analysis conducted by URS is the best means to estimate this induced demand.”
“Based on our analysis of the survey data, a total of 115 Las Vegas traveler respondents were asked: ‘If there were a high-speed train from California to Las Vegas, would you consider a one-day trip on this train?’ Respondents to this question could not be provided with any additional information about the high-speed rail system, including any basic information about the routing, cost or amenities, because the surveys were being personally administered.”
In other words, many of those asked about their willingness to ride a train to Las Vegas weren’t told they’d have to ride it from Victorville.
Much of the data gathered in the ridership studies was collected before the recession took its toll on the economy. Some of the reports referenced how passengers arriving in Las Vegas could get to their hotels if the Las Vegas Monorail is extended. I’m fairly certain that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Federal Railroad Administration approved the DesertXpress loan. There are some forces in Washington that seem to be greater than a runaway train.