High-speed rail from Salt Lake to Vegas: long shot or good bet?

Trains • Sen. McAdams is a driving force, but it could take decades, cost tens of billions of bucks.
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Heard of bullet bikes setting speed records on the salt flats?

How about racing to Sin City — on the rails — aboard a Crazy-Fast Train?

With apologies to rocker Ozzy Osbourne, politicians and transportation planners are seriously considering a high-speed train that would ferry Utahns in just a few hours from button-down Zion to the zeitgeist of careless spending, Las Vegas.

Call it the Deseret Express to match the "Desert Express," the high-speed train already planned between Vegas and Southern California.

Talk of regional rail connecting Western hubs such as Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Reno, Nev., is nothing new. But Utah Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, now wants to form a working group of stakeholders who could vet the train talk and perhaps secure federal funding for the all-important studies.

As McAdams sees it, there's no harm in exploring a Rocky Mountain version of what has long-connected far-flung cities in Japan and across Europe — even if the network would cost tens of billions of dollars and take 20 to 30 years to build.

"We can't let this pass us by," McAdams says. "We need to study whether a connection makes sense. We are the crossroads of the West. And we don't want to be left behind."

The idea would be for a high-speed train hub to be built at Salt Lake City International Airport. The route is an open question. But McAdams notes it would be far less expensive to take a 200 to 300 mph train over public lands — perhaps alongside Interstate 15 with a stop in St. George — rather than atop purchased private property.

Since taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama has stepped up federal funding for high-speed rail. Federal transportation officials equate the endeavor to President Dwight Eisenhower's interstate highways of the 1950s.

But fed maps left out the Southwest and Intermountain West, prompting the creation of the Western High Speed Rail Alliance, formed in part by Utah Transit Authority CEO John Inglish. During the past few years, the alliance has worked to raise money, plan and advocate for a system that ultimately would link population centers between Colorado and California.

"We were kind of the doughnut in the West that didn't get much," explains Hal Johnson, manager of project development for UTA, about the federal funding. "We recognize these are long-term prospects, but if you don't plan for the future, it will never happen."

UTA is working with state leaders, Mountainland Association of Governments, Wasatch Front Regional Council and the Salt Lake Chamber on high-speed-rail strategies. A connection to Vegas, officials say, could curb air pollution and cut down the "short" flights between Utah's capital and the gambling hub.

McAdams notes 70 percent of Salt Lake City airport traffic is passengers making connections — many to Vegas — including a large percentage who take Delta's direct flight from Tokyo en route to Sin City. He sees the airport dispatching both planes and trains — "Delta could run it," he says — similar to European cities.

"It's been the transportation of preference in Europe and Asia — and the U.S. has the right demographics," he adds. "I'm not calling to build it. But there seems to be growing acceptance to the idea in the U.S."

True, to a degree. But there is plenty of pushback in California. The planned rail line between Anaheim and San Francisco has birthed an opposition group dubbed "High-Speed Boondoggle" that has erected snarky billboards across the Golden State. Some read: "Looks like a high-speed train. Smells like pork," "The fastest way to reach Chapter 11," "There goes my farm" and, simply, "Lemon."

The price tag for the project — it has a targeted 2030 completion date — has ballooned to $98 billion. Only a fraction is funded, through a combination of federal grants, local tax dollars and private investment.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority argues the trains use two-thirds less energy than airplanes and that the line would eliminate billions of pounds of greenhouse gas emissions — equivalent to removing a million vehicles from the roads. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this week awarded nearly $1 billion toward the project.

But a report by a coalition of groups, including Citizens Against Government Waste, says cost estimates for the California rail system are too low and ridership estimates "absurdly" high. The environmental benefits are "grossly exaggerated," the study adds, and the commercial revenue is unlikely to pay operating costs and the debt service.

"Claims of profitability could not conceivably be credible," the report reads, "under even the most optimistic assumptions."

Even so, the Salt Lake City-to-Las Vegas rail route is an "intriguing" idea, says Mayor Ralph Becker's spokesman.

"An efficient system could provide a less costly alternative to air travel while creating new, regional connections between the capital city and our neighbors to the south," Art Raymond said in a statement. "A regional rail line would also mesh very well with Mayor Becker's ongoing efforts to create transit alternatives in and around Salt Lake City. At the very least, the idea is worthy of further study."

The vision of the Western High Speed Rail Alliance includes a rail corridor between Denver and Los Angeles with stops in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Another phase envisions links from Salt Lake City to Reno to San Francisco, which ultimately connects to Portland and Seattle. Such a network "will be unparalleled in the nation and the world," the alliance says. And, the group argues, it would reduce dependence on foreign oil, lessen congestion and boost global competitiveness.

It is "very unlikely" UTA would either build or operate the Utah leg, according to spokesman Gerry Carpenter. Instead, he says, the agency would assist in the planning for Inglish's "visionary" blueprint.

"We fit within that model of other countries around the world," UTA's Johnson says. "The basic business case is there. It's really a matter of will."