By Christian Malone, May 9, 2023
The long-planned high-speed rail route between Las Vegas and Los Angeles is one step closer to becoming a reality after a bipartisan group of lawmakers voiced their support for the project and asked the Department of Transportation to invest $3.75 billion into the line.
The line, called Brightline West, is planned to run between Rancho Cucamonga and Las Vegas with two intermediate stops in Hesperia and Apple Valley. Upon completion, it will become the first high-speed rail line in the United States, with the trains topping out at speeds of 186 mph and completing the 218-mile trip in about 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Achieving bipartisan backing is a major steppingstone toward the ultimate success of the project, with politics often delaying the construction of public transportation projects.
“Transportation is political by nature,” said Danny Wu, the executive director of Campus Planning, Transportation & Sustainability at CPP. “When you’re dealing with competing interests and limited funding going around, it’s always going to be political.”
A bipartisan group, including all six of Nevada’s federal lawmakers as well as four representatives from California, sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg voicing their support for Brightline’s plan to spend $10 billion to begin laying tracks for the project April 24.
The route will offer an alternative to air and road travel between the greater LA area and Las Vegas.
Each year, people make about 50 million one-way trips between LA and Las Vegas, with most of those trips being taken by car. This new mode of travel could play a major role in mitigating congestion on the heavily trafficked I-15.I-15.
The trains used for the line, which have been marketed as “the greenest trains in America,” will be fully electric, zero-emission trains, which means the route can also help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from road vehicles.
“If you’re getting choice riders to give up their cars and get onto a train or other form of transit, then you’re eliminating vehicle miles traveled,” Wu said. “With a good source of our greenhouse gas emissions coming from light-to-medium duty vehicles, that has its own benefits.”
The route to Las Vegas is not the only high-speed rail project being constructed in California. Starting in 2015, the California High Speed Rail Authority began constructing a massive system connecting the Bay Area to LA and Orange Counties. The government-funded project, however, has come under scrutiny after repeated delays and cost hikes.
Brightline West, meanwhile, has incorporated measures to cut costs and prevent possible delays once construction begins. First among these measures is the line’s precise route, which is planned to run in the median of I-15 to keep costs down and further protect the environment.
“You can imagine if we had to build up new infrastructure parallel to I-15, we’d have to buy lots of land and do lots of environmental analyses to make sure the wildlife is not impacted,” said Wen Cheng, a professor and the associate chair of the civil engineering department. “But building a new high-speed rail line next to existing I-15 infrastructure, that would make things extremely easy.”
Constructing the railway within I-15, while cost-effective, also requires concrete barriers to be built to divide the rail line from the existing roadway. Barriers like these would make crossing the roadway impossible for wildlife, which could have disastrous effects on the local environment.
To mitigate the effect on wildlife mobility in the area, the plan also includes three wildlife crossings that will be constructed along the route. Cheng said by targeting areas where wildlife already frequently crosses the freeway, these handful of crossings can successfully preserve their mobility in the area.
The company said they project about 24% of the millions of visitors who normally drive to Vegas will switch to its high-speed rail service. Urban and regional planning Professor Do Kim is skeptical of those projection, ,
“To me, the competition between this high-speed rail and the cars on the highway will be very limited,” Kim said. “To me, this high-speed rail will compete with air travel.”
Kim explained that drivers are only willing to give up the freedom of mobility that comes with having a car if they save money and time by choosing public transit. Since drivers would first have to find their way to Rancho Cucamonga before getting on the train to Las Vegas, the entire trip may not be fast enough or cheap enough to appeal to them. Airline passengers, meanwhile, have already accepted not having access to a car and could save time by avoiding long security lines at the airport, which may make the train more appealing to them.
To attract air and road travelers alike, the high-speed rail line must be both reasonably priced and thoroughly interconnected with existing Southern Californian transit lines. While Brightline West will directly connect to Rancho Cucamonga’s existing Metrolink station, Metrolink is not the ideal system to connect the route to the rest of the region.
“Metrolink is a commuter rail system developed in the era of monocentric cities, which means downtown LA is the super hub of everything,” Kim said. “If you take a look at Metrolink routes, everything goes to downtown LA. So, for example, what about people living in Orange County that want to go to Rancho Cucamonga? There are no direct routes that are connected.”
While ridership predictions vary, exact numbers will not be known until the line opens for revenue service. Currently, service is anticipated to begin in 2027.
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