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From Sin City to the City of Angels, building starts on high-speed rail line

Groundbreaking on a $12 billion high-speed passenger rail line between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles area is just about here

By KEN RITTER, Associated Press
Published: April 22, 2024, 7:43am

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A $12 billion high-speed passenger rail line between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles area has started construction, officials said Monday, amid predictions that millions of ticket-buyers will be boarding trains by 2028.

“People have been dreaming of high-speed rail in America for decades,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement released to coincide with a ceremony at the future site of a terminal to be built just south of the Las Vegas Strip.

Buttigieg predicted the project will bring “thousands of union jobs, new connections to better economic opportunity, less congestion on the roads, and less pollution in the air.”

Brightline West, whose sister company already operates a fast train between Miami and Orlando in Florida, aims to lay 218 miles (351 kilometers) of new track between Las Vegas and another new facility in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Almost the full distance is to be built in the median of Interstate 15, with a station stop in San Bernardino County’s Victorville area.

Brightline Holdings founder and Chairperson Wes Edens dubbed the moment “the foundation for a new industry.”

“This is a historic project and a proud moment,” Edens said in the statement. “Today is long overdue.”

Brightline aims to link other U.S. cities that are too near to each other for air travel to make sense and too far for people to drive the distance.

Company CEO Mike Reininger has said the goal is to have trains operating in time for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028.

Brightline received $6.5 billion in backing from the Biden administration, including a $3 billion grant from federal infrastructure funds and approval to sell another $2.5 billion in tax-exempt bonds. The company won federal authorization in 2020 to sell $1 billion in similar bonds.

The project is touted as the first true high-speed passenger rail line in the nation, designed to reach speeds of 186 mph (300 kph), comparable to Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains.

The route between Vegas and LA is largely open space, with no convenient alternate to I-15. Brightline’s Southern California terminal will be at a commuter rail connection to downtown Los Angeles.

The project outline says electric-powered trains will cut the four-hour trip across the Mojave Desert to a little more than two hours. Forecasts are for 11 million one-way passengers per year, or some 30,000 per day, with fares well below airline travel costs. The trains will offer rest rooms, Wi-Fi, food and beverage sales and the option to check luggage.

Las Vegas is a popular driving destination for Southern Californians. Officials hope the train line will relieve congestion on I-15, where drivers often sit in miles of crawling traffic while returning home from a Las Vegas weekend.

The Las Vegas area, now approaching 3 million residents, draws more than 40 million visitors per year. Passenger traffic at the city’s Harry Reid International Airport set a record of 57.6 million people in 2023. An average of more than 44,000 automobiles per day crossed the California-Nevada state line on I-15 in 2023, according to Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority data.

Florida-based Brightline Holdings launched the Miami-to-Orlando line in 2018 with trains reaching speeds up to 125 mph (200 kph). It expanded service to Orlando International Airport last September. It offers 16 round-trips per day, with one-way tickets for the 235-mile (378-kilometer) distance costing about $80.

Other fast trains in the U.S. include Amtrak’s Acela, which can top 150 mph (241 kph) while sharing tracks with freight and commuter service between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Passenger trains to Las Vegas ended in 1997, when Amtrak quit service it called the Desert Wind. The idea of a bullet train to Los Angeles dates to at least 2005 under various names including DesertXpress.

Brightline West acquired rights to the project in 2019, pieced together right-of-way and environmental approvals, and reached labor agreements.

Ideas for connecting other U.S. cities with high-speed passenger trains have been floated in recent years, including Dallas to HoustonAtlanta to Charlotte, North Carolina; and Chicago to St. Louis. Most have faced delays.

In California, voters in 2008 approved a proposed 500-mile (805-kilometer) rail line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco, but the plan has been beset by rising costs and routing disputes. A 2022 business plan by the California High-Speed Rail Authority projected the cost had more than tripled to $105 billion.

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