S. Bernardino County Puts the Brakes on Vegas Train

Times Urban Affairs Writer

Opposition to the Las Vegas-Southern California super-speed train in San Bernardino County, where the proposed line's southwestern terminus would be, shows no sign of abating and appears to have become a major obstacle for the project.

The main reason for opposition in the county, and in the region in general, is the widespread perception that the train would serve primarily as a means of conveying Southern Californians' money to Las Vegas slot machines and gaming tables, and that the economic benefits on the California end would be negligible.

"This project would be disastrous for my county and for our state," San Bernardino County Supervisor Jon Mikels said in an interview. "It should be scrapped unless it can be shown to have positive economic benefits for California and there are no serious environmental consequences."

Three Withhold Judgment

Mikels and Larry Walker, two of the five county supervisors, are opposed to the train. The other three supervisors are withholding judgment.

The San Bernardino Associated Governments has taken no formal position yet, but staff studies indicate that the proposed line, 230 miles long and costing $2 billion or more to build, would present many problems and provide few benefits for the county.

"It just makes no sense," said Mayor Howard Snider of Ontario. Ontario is the currently proposed Southern California terminus for the 185- to 250-m.p.h. train. "It would increase smog and traffic congestion, it would create very few new jobs and most of the economic benefits would go to Nevada," Snider said.

Though opposition among the county's politicians is widespread, it is not unanimous. The Fontana City Council has asked that Fontana be considered as the Southern California terminus. And Assemblyman Gerald R. Eaves (D-Rialto) supports the project because, he said in an interview, "I'm just excited about the new technology--that we could be the leaders in this, on the cutting edge. That's what California is all about."

Advanced Technology

Eaves' reference was to the West German-built, magnetically levitated (maglev) train technology that is being considered for the line. Maglev trains, which so far exist only as prototypes on test tracks, are thought to be capable of speeds of up to 250 m.p.h., floating one to four inches above a trackless guideway and propelled by electromagnetism.

Also under consideration is a French-designed steel-wheeled system similar to trains now in service between Paris and Lyon. On the Las Vegas route, such a train could achieve a top speed of 185 m.p.h. and would cost an estimated $2 billion to build--$500,000 less than the maglev.

Though Eaves said he believes opinion is changing in San Bernardino County as people learn more about the train, a recent reader survey by the Ontario Daily Report showed opponents of the train outnumbering supporters by a ratio of 8 to 1.

The belief that the train has little to offer Southern California in the long run is bolstered by studies commissioned by the high-speed line's Las Vegas boosters. They concluded that 80% to 90% of the economic benefits of the 7- to 10-year construction period would go to Southern California, but that Las Vegas would derive 80% of the economic benefits from the completed route.

Trade-off Suggested

Several California politicians have suggested that Las Vegas should sweeten the pot by helping to finance needed public works in exchange for support of the super-speed train.

Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said: "I don't have a whole lot of interest in making it easy for a lot of California money to go to Las Vegas, but I would like to see if they can help us solve some of our transportation problems."

"Perhaps they would put up the money for some roads or for a light rail system in the 91 corridor," Katz added, referring to the congested 91 Freeway linking Riverside and San Bernardino with northern Orange County.

But Las Vegas City Manager Ashley Hall said there was "no way" the city would pay for California highways or transit systems in return for support of high-speed rail.

Anger in Las Vegas

When San Bernardino County Supervisor Walker suggested recently that Las Vegas might win support for the train by offering to build a sports arena for the county, or hauling some of the county's garbage to Nevada, Las Vegas Mayor Bill Briare was "highly indignant" and others were even angrier.

"I don't have a lot of respect for the integrity of some of the political leaders" in Southern California," said Jack Libby, a Las Vegas home builder and chairman of a citizens' task force promoting the train. "We're talking about a great technological breakthrough here and this guy (Walker) has a 'what's in this for us?' attitude."

But Walker said he was "just being realistic" when he told Las Vegas representatives several weeks ago that they had to produce benefits for San Bernardino County if they expected support for their project.

"I was just trying to educate them," Walker said, "but apparently that's a hopeless task. . . . they have an arrogant and, I guess, kind of obtuse attitude."

Lobbyist Hired

For now, the Las Vegas forces have shifted the bulk of their attention to Sacramento. They have hired lobbyist Paula Treat ($10,000 for a three-month contract, just renewed) to build support for the super-speed train in the California Legislature.

So far, this approach has been successful. A bill by Katz to create a California-Nevada commission to further investigate the train's possibilities and look for a possible builder was recently approved by the Assembly Transportation Committee by an 11-1 vote, and a similar bill is moving through the Nevada Legislature.

But Supervisor Walker warned that this approach might not work. "The San Diego 'bullet train' had a lot of support in Sacramento, too," he noted, referring to the proposal for privately financed, high-speed rail service between Los Angeles and San Diego that was abandoned in 1984. "But it failed because some local communities didn't want it."

Mindful of this problem, high-speed rail enthusiasts from Las Vegas have continued to woo Southern California communities, speaking to any group that wants to hear them, from Needles, on the Colorado River, to Montclair, on the Los Angeles-San Bernardino county line.

Since Ontario does not seem to want the Southern California terminal, they are talking to Fontana and other San Bernardino County communities that might be interested.

Alternatives Considered

"We're not wedded to Ontario," Las Vegas City Manager Hall said. "Ontario was looked at as a study point but not necessarily as th e point."

Among alternatives being considered with varying degrees of seriousness are:

- A 37-mile extension to Anaheim, using the same equipment for commuter service during the week and for the weekend high-speed runs to Las Vegas.

- A route cutting across the Mojave Desert, from Barstow to Palmdale, entering the Los Angeles Basin at the north end of the San Fernando Valley.

- Extension of the line to Corona, at the western edge of Riverside County, and possibly adding a stop in Victorville.

'They'll Go Anywhere'

"At this point, I think they'll go anywhere that wants them," said a San Bernardino County planner.

Many serious questions face the Las Vegas project. Are the ridership estimates too high? Have the environmental dangers been underestimated? Who will put up the money to build a system that probably will cost between $4.5 billion and $5 billion, when inflation and interest payments have been added to the original cost estimates?

But the most important question may be whether train sponsors can persuade Southern Californians that super-speed rail service is in their interest.

"I think it is," said Robert E. Parsons, the former Federal Railroad Administration official who was hired to coordinate the Las Vegas studies, "but so far we haven't done a very good job of getting that idea across."

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