Is high speed rail becoming more viable in the Intermountain West?


By Allan Best

If you look at a map showing federally designated high-speed rail corridors in the United States, the Great Plains and intermountain West look like some kind of giant inland sea. From Kansas City to Sacramento, it’s all blank.
But representatives from several of the West’s metropolitan areas – Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno, Las Vegas, and Phoenix – have set out to begin imagining a different transportation web across the West. To make high-speed rail work, say proponents, it can’t share tracks with lumbering freight trains or dawdling Amtrak trains. The new train will need their own dedicated routes.

The Western High Speed Rail Alliance, a group formed in August 2009, recently got a $1 million grant from the Obama administration for planning. Half the money must go to a link between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles Basin. The other half can be used to begin shaping high-speed corridors among the intermountain West’s metropolitan areas, most of them 400 to 500 miles apart.

High speed rail map courtesy US Department of Transportation.

“You can’t build a national high-speed rail system and exclude 10 states,” says Tom Skancke, executive director of the Las Vegas-based Rail Alliance.  “It’s not just Eugene (Ore.) to Seattle, and San Diego to San Francisco, or Houston to Dallas. A national system has to include all states – just like the interstate highway system.”
Rail proponents often draw comparisons to interstate highways authorized by Congress in 1956 and 1957. They assume that high-speed rail, like interstate highways, must be a federal initiative, but possibly with foreign and private-sector investment.

“We are at the stage with high-speed rail where we were 50 to 60 years ago with the intestate highways,” says Gerry Carpenter, spokesman for the Utah Transit Authority.

Utah Transit operates 65 miles of light and commuter rail in the Salt Lake Valley and the broader urban corridor called the Wasatch Front. Another 70 are scheduled to begin operation in the next few years.

“We would argue that the time to plan is before you need it, not after you need it,” adds Carpenter. And, he insists, skipping over the Intermountain West “would be a mistake, in our opinion.”
But clearly, the Intermountain West and Great Plains lack one crucial feature common to the 11 high-speed corridors previously identified by the federal government: large populations.

Speaking at a recent conference held by USA Rail conference in Denver, Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, a mass transit advocacy group, said there is no clear formula for success, but generally high-speed rail works best when connecting large cities with other densely populated inner cities.

“If jobs and activities are spread out, then a high-speed rail doesn’t necessarily offer an advantage over driving,” she said. “The strength of a central business district is a good indicator of potential ridership.”

In her calculus, a city of 6 million beats two cities of 3 million. Phoenix, with a metropolitan area of 3.5 million, is the largest city in the Intermountain West, followed by metropolitan Denver’s 2.8 million. By this measure, the West falls short.

Demographers, however, expect the Southwestern states to continue their torrid growth of recent decades. By 2035, according to these projections, Arizona’s population will expand by 5.6 million people, Nevada’s by 2.3 million, and Colorado by 1.5 million. Utah’s will grow 1.25 million. Most growth will occur in or near metropolitan areas.

Kitty Clemens, spokeswoman for the Denver Regional Council of Governments, says public officials firmly believe they need to plan for population growth, including many new residents shed by the country’s so-called Rust Belt regions.

The Western High Speed Alliance hopes to expand its network of cities. Skancke plans to reach out to Albuquerque and Boise. Each member has committed to $50,000 a year for three years. With this broadening coalition, the alliance hopes to get additional planning money from the federal government.

A first order of business will be to crunch ridership numbers, to understand how many people travel by plane between the various cities. High-speed rail proponents see their primary competition being short-haul flights of 400 to 500 miles, such as between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Airlines have indicated they’d be happy for help to ease the West Coast congestion.

Still, it all sounds terribly distant. Even in the nation’s congested areas, there’s just one high-speed train — Amtrak’s Acela Express, between New York City and Boston – and it’s not all that fast. It occasionally hits 150 mph. By most definitions, high-speed rail begins at 150 mph. Several countries—among them Spain, Japan and France – have trains that reach 200 to 300 mph.

But interest has grown rapidly in the last several years. Indicative was the 2008 approval by California voters of $9.5 million in bonding for the Los Angeles-Bay Area line.

The Obama administration has ladled out $8 billion for inter-city passenger rail, about half to high-speed corridors, followed by another $2.4 billion in assistance. Of that, $598 went to planning for the Cascadia line in the Pacific Northwest, with another $2.3 billion to California’s high-speed rail line. Actual construction in California might begin by 2012.

With federal assistance, Colorado recently completed a $1.6 million examination of the feasibility of high-speed rail parallel to I-25 and I-70, the state’s two primary corridors. The study found sustained and profitable ridership – but only after a steep capital investment of $20 billion to $25 billion. The U.S. Department of Transportation has also penciled in links from Phoenix to Tucson, and another from Denver to El Paso, Texas.


Las Vegas looks like the big bet. Several proposals have vied for favor. The prize would be the tourists in Southern California, who flood Interstate 15 on weekends.

Ironically, although founded as a railroad stop, Las Vegas lost rail service in 1997, when Amtrak yanked its Desert Wind. A proposal by, the Las Vegas Railway Express in partnership with Union Pacific, would restore that route with an emphasis on luxury – and, inside the Nevada line, gambling. It would not cut travel time.
But two rivaling proposals intend to whack travel time on the 270 miles of desert from five hours on congested weekends to two hours or less.

The DesertXpress, with new support from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, appears to be the fronrunner. Skancke says imminent environmental review could clear the project for construction beginning next year.
But the line, as now contemplated, has a fatal flaw: it dead-ends at Victorville, still 85 miles from Los Angeles. Part of the federal money must go to mapping the missing link to Palmsdale, where it is to connect with California’s high-speed rail.

“There are 8 million people each year who drive from California to Southern Nevada and three million people who fly,” said Skancke one recent evening, as he was driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. “That’s 11 million people a year who travel this corridor. There’s another five million people who travel each year before Los Angeles and Phoenix.”

Skancke says high-speed rail also will improve the tourism prospects for Colorado and Utah. A link between Denver and Salt Lake City, he says, makes them one destination.

Skeptics suggest a more raw political strategy, at least in the immediate future. Nevada, even with Reid counting noses, remains just two noses in the Senate and three in the House of Representatives. Other states don’t have that much more. By banding together, they might get Nevada across the finish line.

That same thinking also would seem to explain the proposal to identify a high-speed rail line linking Denver to El Paso. There was even talk of trying to link Cheyenne, Wyo., drawing in the votes of yet another Congressional delegation.

But costs, at least for the moment, seem overwhelming. States struggle to fill potholes, let alone build new infrastructure. And Tea Party-influenced Republicans now vow to fling cold water on the federal budget.
“Clearly, however, there is little public money to be had, especially in comparison to he estimated costs of these systems,” says Jaime Rall, a transportation analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, in a
position paper. A stable funding source will further be needed for operations, she warns.

U.S. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood recently estimated the cost of a nationwide high-speed rail network at $500 billion. Portions of California’s high-speed rail will cost nearly $92 million per mile. It sounds grim – but not so to high-speed rail proponents. In the West’s wide-open spaces, they image much lower building costs, especially on federal lands. Think of Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.

“If we are going to have transportation program that is going to be globally competitive, it has to include high-speed rail component,” says Skancke.

“I don’t think it will take 50 years to build,” he adds. “We have to get just one project up and running.”

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