March 13, 2013

Republicans call to reject $5.5B Calif.-to-Vegas HSR loan

LOS ANGELES — Officials told the AP that top Republicans in Congress want the Obama administration to reject a $5.5 billion loan being sought by XpressWest, a private Nevada company, to build a high-speed train from California to Las Vegas.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, claimed in a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that the project is “costly, wasteful and risky.” ExpressWest’s founder/CEO responded to them in a letter defending the project. For the full story, click here.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Railroad Passengers released a statement opposing the congressmen's claims:

"The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP)  denounced a partisan political attack on a high-speed rail project that would connect southern California and Las Vegas with fast, safe, and convenient train service. The project would create new jobs and ease congestion on one of the nation’s premier travel corridors.

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood attacking the XpressWest high-speed rail project and asking him to reject a $5.5 billion Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan application. RRIF is an underutilized federal program of loans to incentivize private-sector infrastructure investments. The Congressmen urge U.S. DOT to reject the loan. They relied heavily on an analysis done by the anti-rail Reason Foundation, which has pushed the unsubstantiated claim that international high-speed projects have been “plagued by optimistic ridership and revenue forecasts.”

XpressWest initially would connect with Metrolink trains at Palmdale.  Ultimately, the trains would offer a single-seat ride between Los Angeles to Las Vegas.  A link with northern California would be provided by a connection at Palmdale with California’s planned Los Angeles-San Francisco high-speed rail line. The initial 185-mile segment would be an alternative to the heavily traveled Interstate-15. The train would reach top speeds of 150 mph, turning a four-hour drive into an 80 minute train trip. The line's construction would create over 80,000 direct and indirect construction-related jobs, 2,100 permanent jobs, and produce a $7.8 billion increase in economic activity. The train also would divert over two million annual automobile trips from I-15, saving an estimated 440,000 barrels of oil each year. Later phases could link Las Vegas with Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver, connecting 25 million people.

The letter is part of a total attack on intercity passenger rail. The Ryan budget released yesterday states that such projects "should be pursued only if they can be established as self-supporting commercial services.”  This criterion has not been applied to highway projects. Highlighting public policies that hugely favor highways, a total of $53.3 billion in general funds have been transferred to the Highway Trust Fund since President George W. Bush signed into law the first transfer in 2008.

“When Congressmen from Wisconsin and Texas step in to prevent a Nevada-based business from developing service between two robust travel markets — markets currently choked with road and air congestion — it goes a long way towards explaining why the U.S. transportation network is in its current state,” said NARP President Ross Capon. “If Congress is going to base their transportation decisions on reports issued by the Reason Foundation, the U.S. will not see a new rail or transit project, ever, and existing services will be threatened.”

One troubling aspect of the Ryan-Sessions letter is that it lets Washington partisanship override local support for the project, which has been endorsed or supported by the Southern California Association of Governments; Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties; the cities of Victorville, Palmdale, Lancaster, Adelanto and Town of Apple Valley (acting through the High Desert Corridor Joint Powers Authority); and the California High Speed Rail Authority and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

XpressWest has responded to the Ryan-Sessions letter, reiterating the project’s potential to create jobs, improve safety, and reduce air pollution and oil consumption."

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