Las Vegas—The idea has been kicked around for years — a high-speed train to zip passengers from SoCal to Sin City and then boomerang them back, bypassing the sea of brake lights flooding the highway to and from Las Vegas.
Originally, even the most farfetched scenarios didn't include Victorville — a desert pit-stop for thousands of gamblers en route to Las Vegas — as the starting point for such turgid dreams.
But with plans for a magnetically levitated bullet train between Anaheim and Nevada still on the drawing board after nearly two decades of research, a private group proposing a Victorville-to-Las Vegas train has been gaining some credibility with transportation officials in California and Las Vegas.
"There's still work to be done," said William A. Mosby, a district deputy director for planning and public transportation with the California Department of Transportation. "But Caltrans thinks it's a very realistic proposal. It doesn't look like it's pie-in-the-sky thinking at all. If any of the projects move forward, I think it will be this one."
And with growing frustration over Interstate 15 congestion, escalating gas prices and airport delays, some see a train as the only way a spontaneous weekend Vegas spree from Southern California will be possible in future years.
The plan, pitched by Thomas Stone of the Las Vegas-based DesertXpress Enterprises, calls for electric-diesel hybrid trains to make the 190-mile trip every 20 minutes. The construction wouldn't use federal or state funding; the hope is that investor funds, which have yet to be raised, will cover the estimated $3-billion cost. The train would top out at 125 mph, making the one-way trip in about 1 hour and 45 minutes.
"Millions of people use Interstate 15 to get to Vegas, and it is getting too congested," said Stone, who has worked as a consultant for transit projects in China and the Las Vegas Monorail — which currently faces dire financial straits. "We will have trains to carry that demand every 20 minutes."
Stone and his group are betting that Los Angeles and Orange County residents would be willing to drive to Victorville — about 80 miles from Los Angeles or Anaheim — to hop on the train.
But the Victorville terminus is seen by others as a major drawback.
"That's one of the concerns of ours," said Kent Cooper, Nevada Department of Transportation's assistant director of planning. "Typically, one of the major congested areas is Victorville to the Los Angeles Basin. So in some points, you're avoiding one of the problem areas that need to be addressed."
Another risk is that early estimates have round-trip tickets costing about $110, a price competitive with pre-booked flights from LAX to Las Vegas. But Stone said that his service, which he hopes would lure about 4 million people annually, would cater to those who plan — or rather don't plan — spur-of-the-moment Vegas trips.
Still, the question remains: Why Victorville?
"Victorville is the closest urbanized area to the population base of Southern California," Stone said. "What we are looking for is a project without public tax dollars. There aren't any available for building this in Los Angeles, so we have to come as close as we can to the population center to make the project successful financially."
The move would also avoid the Cajon Pass, the high mountain access between the San Bernardino and San Gabriel ranges that links the high desert and the Los Angeles Basin. By bypassing the pass, billions of dollars would be saved.
Victorville, which has a population of nearly 100,000 and is quickly becoming the economic hub of the high desert, is on board and seeking to use the project as a coming-of-age-event. And, according to studies performed by Stone, between 5 million and 10 million people are within an hour's drive to Victorville, depending on the time of day.
City officials envision Vegas-bound visitors arriving in a 10,000-vehicle parking lot in Victorville to begin their excursion. Check-in and baggage services would be provided, with all the major hotels represented.
"Victorville has flown under the radar for quite a long time," said Bill Webb, the city's development director. "Most people would think Victorville is just a place people go through on their way to Vegas, but we are the powerhouse of the high desert. We are ready and willing to take on all the responsibilities of being a full-fledged city."
Officials hope to break ground next year and have trains operating by 2012.
"If you've ever seen Interstate 15 on a Friday going north to Las Vegas, it's a parking lot," said Victorville Mayor Terry E. Caldwell. "The volume of traffic is unbearable. We look at the impact this will have, and we are seeing all positive."
But the plan clashes with a long-standing proposal for a project that would propel magnetically levitated trains on a cushion of air at speeds of up to 300 mph between Anaheim and Las Vegas. That train could be running by 2015, if taxpayers and private investors foot the estimated $10-billion cost.
Both proposals are in the environmental impact stage. Afterward, they are expected to tussle for investment money, with only one coming out as the winner.
"If you have the choice of a maglev operating at 300 mph versus a 20th-century-technology train that will go at most 125 mph, which one do you think the consumer will choose?" said Neil Cummings, president of the American Maglev Group.
And to add to the mix, Amtrak, which discontinued its financially troubled Desert Wind service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas in 1997, is considering restoring its services.
But for transportation officials such as Nevada's Cooper, it only matters that one of the projects gets built.
"You would characterize us as a supporter of all of them," he said. "There needs to be an alternate way of transportation. If we keep putting all our eggs in one basket, we are setting us up for disaster."