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North-south high speed rail bigger gamble than casino train

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POSTED July 23, 2013 1:54 a.m.

So why are all bets off — at least on the federal level — with Xpress West?

Xpress West is a proposed heavily subsidized high-speed rail system to carry gamblers to and from Victorville to Las Vegas. It would cost $6.9 billion to construct double tracks to cover the 189-mile distance. It is such a sure winner that the private backers are only willing to put up $1.4 billion and expected their uncle – as in Uncle Sam – to cough up the rest.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the government’s point man  on the loan request,  announced this past week that further consideration of the $5.5 billion loan was being suspended indefinitely. He cited concerns that Xpress West wasn’t planning on buying enough American products to build the system plus cited other “significant uncertainties.”

Given that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his casino contributors are practically salivating over the project and the fact the federal government never has had an issue with not buying American, it is actually the “significant uncertainties” that are finally scaring off the folks in Washington, D.C., who go through money faster than Paris Hilton.

So what are those “significant uncertainties”?

It has a lot to do with whether people would drive 100 miles from Los Angeles, park in a gigantic park-and-ride lot in Victorville in the middle of the desert and then pay $89 round trip per person to get to Las Vegas. Then once there they have to rely on public transportation to get around.

The trip minus parking the car, waiting for the next available train supposedly at 20-minute intervals, de-boarding, securing ground transportation and such is expected to take 84 minutes by high speed rail.

Compare that to three hours assuming anyone from Los Angeles drives 60 miles an hour. In reality it would probably be 2.5 hours by freeway and two hours by high speed rail once the hassle of getting to and from the train is factored into the equation.

The time consumed at the beginning and end of a non-vehicle trip is a significant consideration for many travelers. Think of the number of people who have eschewed traveling by plane between Los Angeles and San Francisco due to the time spent at the airport getting past security screening, picking up luggage, and securing ground transportation.

Yes, it may be cheaper per mile to travel high speed for an individual but time, as they say, is money.

Which brings us to the cost analysis that Xpress West was relying on to get casino-bound travelers out of their cars.

The typical vehicle costs less than 60 cents a mile to operate, according to the American Automobile Association. That would make the round-trip between Victorville and Las Vegas that covers 378 miles cost $226. That looks good compared to the $89 round ticket cost.

So how many people from LA drive to Sin City by themselves? If there are two people in the vehicle, the cost per passenger drops to $113 as opposed to $89 per passenger on high speed rail. And if there is a third person in the car, the cost per passenger drops down to $75.30 per person compared to $89 by rail.

Rail travel has the hassle of parking, waiting, and moving luggage. Plus you can bet your last tax dollar that high speed rail would charge extra for luggage you’d just cram into your car and probably assess transit taxes as well. Then there is the cost of ground transportation in Las Vegas.

All of the above may be true but it isn’t reality for most folks when calculating the cost of a vacation trip.

The real numbers that matter to most of us is gas and nothing but gas. Assuming a vehicle averages 30 miles per gallon, the round trip between Victorville and Las Vegas comes to $50.40 with gas at $4 a gallon. Not only is that less expensive than a solo driver opposed to the $89 round trip via high speed rail but you add a second person on the car and it drops to $25.40 per person or about 30 percent of just one high speed ticket.

So now the $70 billion question (or is it a $100B question): How does high speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles differ?

If you commute that route — and a lot of people do daily or several times a week on airlines —  it might make sense to you. Besides, if you are doing that price isn’t probably all that big of a factor.

But if you are the legions of folks who drive Interstate 5, Highway 99 or Highway 101 between the two metro areas, will the high speed rail tickets now put at $81 one way get you out of your car especially since you still have to get from the station to your ultimate destination(s) once you arrive?

LaHood knows the answer. So do any honest backers of high speed rail.

High speed rail works best on high use commute corridors. That’s because people are going from their home to their job and back. They aren’t taking luggage. They aren’t taking their family. They have to hassle 25 mph traffic.

Too bad Uncle Sam doesn’t realize that California high speed rail as it is structured today is a much bigger gamble than the casino train.



This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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