Despite throwing billions at other rail projects across the country, the federal government decided last week to not allocate any of the $500,000 Utah had requested to study the feasibility of a rail line between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.
Neither did the government allocate any of the money Idaho was seeking to study a line between Boise and Salt Lake City.
This was a shortsighted decision, especially in light of the government’s obvious desire to reconnect much of the nation through a fast rail line. Amtrak officials have identified what they say is an “overwhelming support for passenger rail in America.” Ignoring major, fast-growing markets in the interior West calls into question the seriousness of this endeavor. If someone in, say, Denver, wants to get by rail quickly to Los Angeles, Salt Lake City is an obvious stop.
However, this is far less of a blow than it might seem. Private ventures are promising to connect cities in the West for much less money. And the billions of dollars Washington seems anxious to throw at high-speed rail lines has so far proven to be a waste of money, at a time when expensive public programs already have exacerbated inflation.
The Biden administration is pledging $8.2 billion toward 10 major passenger rail projects nationwide, including $3 billion for a high-speed project between Las Vegas and Southern California.
So far, the government doesn’t have a good track record on rail projects.
A planned high-speed route from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with trains traveling up to 220 mph, has been mired in controversy and overruns. Voters even approved a $9 billion bond in 2008 to add to federal funding. To this date, no track has been laid, and the project’s estimated cost has ballooned to more than $100 billion.
Amtrak already is plagued by fares that rival, or exceed, air fares to the same destinations. Such expensive projects will either keep those fares high or require considerable public subsidies.
Instead, private ventures have begun to make inroads in some of the more profitable markets. A company called Brightline began service earlier this year between cities in Southern Florida.
Meanwhile, a California company called Dreamstar Lines Inc. is independently studying a private rail service between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, with a major stop in Las Vegas and smaller stops along the way. Students at Utah Tech or Southern Utah University could use this for easy and frequent trips home to the Wasatch Front. The Las Vegas to Salt Lake City run would feature overnight sleeping cars for about the price of air fare and a hotel.
A company official said Dreamstar already is hard at work on a line connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco, which the company hopes will be operational in 2025. While its trains won’t be as fast as the high-speed electric lines the government is promising, the line promises to be operational far ahead of the government’s lines.
Once its California line is operational, Dreamstar hopes to quickly finish its line to Utah well before the anticipated 2034 Winter Olympics. That line would hook into a line the company hopes to build between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, effectively connecting Salt Lake City by rail to Los Angeles.
Dreamstar’s business plan is to lease little-used freight lines connecting large cities. Because it’s privately funded, the company will have to compete successfully with air and automobile traffic in order to remain in business. Government-funded high-speed lines have no such competitive pressures — at least not in the planning and building stages. They are likely to encounter them as they begin competing head-to-head, however.
If Washington were forced to think competitively, it would be anticipating the 2034 Olympics and pouring money into rail lines as another source for bringing the world to the Wasatch Front. But maybe it’s just as well. A private venture seems much more likely to beat the 10-year construction deadline for that event.