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The Unbreakable U.S. High-Speed Rail System

Without federal funding, bullet train projects across the country have gotten creative.

A rendering of a Las Vegas to Los Angeles XpressWest train. (XpressWest)

The Republican smackdown of federal high-speed rail funding was supposed to be the death of the national system of fast trains the White House envisioned early in President Obama’s first term. And yet cities across the country keep trying to make HSR happen.

The latest example is XpressWest, the proposed bullet train between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Last week project officials announced a new partnership with China Railway International, complete with $100 million in seed money, to “accelerate launch” of the line. The September 2016 target date to start construction seems ambitious, but given that the project’s environmental documents are already in order, it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

If you’d given up much hope on XpressWest, you’re not alone. One insider tells CityLab the China Railway announcement caught even top Nevada officials by surprise. The project hadn’t made much noise since being denied a federal RRIF loan in June 2013 on the grounds that it violated the “Buy America” provision that encourages recipients to use parts manufactured in the U.S.—the obvious problem being that America doesn’t really have a high-speed rail industry at the moment.

But the new deal seems ready to address that concern head on. Here’s the L.A. Times:

XpressWest materials state that although the project has adopted an “assemble and manufacture in America” plan, the manufacturing base for high-speed trains is “not yet mature.”

Therefore, venture backers indicated they intended to partner with foreign suppliers for the estimated 42 train sets they anticipate needing, with assembly being performed in southern Nevada.

The Buy America provision was a tenuous reason to deny the RRIF loan in the first place—highway projects get relief from these requirements all the time. But if XpressWest truly makes plans to open a manufacturing plant in Nevada, the loan comes back on the table. Suddenly, the $5 billion or so that the project is expected to cost seems far less daunting.

One more thing to keep in mind: the announcement is explicit about a rail line “connecting Las Vegas, Nevada to Los Angeles, California.” The inclusion of L.A. has been interpreted to mean Southern California broadly; after all, XpressWest is only cleared through Victorville. But consider that L.A. Metro and Caltrans have advanced plans in the works for a “High Desert Corridor” that will connect Victorville and Palmdale—with a preferred design alternative that involves running high-speed rail in the median of a freeway. Point being that with California high-speed rail slated to reach Palmdale, too, it’s not hard to see a single-seat ride from L.A. to L.V. emerging in the future.

The XpressWest news is the latest example of how local officials and project coordinators have gotten fiscally creative in the absence of sustained federal funding for high-speed rail. California turned to cap-and-trade revenue. Florida is banking on value capture and real estate profits. Texas is insisting on private investors.

Nothing is done yet, and plenty of U.S. HSR projects still haven’t identified any reliable source of funding at all. But planning continues to advance with the expectation that something will come along—as it has for the above ventures.

Illinois is taking an incremental approach via “higher”-speed rail. Japan has offered to put up serious cash for a Baltimore-Washington train as a sort of advertisement for maglev technology. Parts of a Southeast rail corridor just got environmental approval, clearing the way to go knocking on wealthy doors. And the Northeast corridor remains the most viable HSR stretch in the U.S., especially if plans can be scaled back to fit more realistic funding expectations.

In other words, the U.S. high-speed rail map, long left for dead, is actually coming into form—albeit slowly. There’s admittedly a great degree of uncertainty with all these projects; it’s quite possible many will fade away yet, and others will take many years to emerge. But it’s also possible we’re seeing the staggered, shadowy outlines of a new national transportation network in the making.

Despite a solid case to be made for more federal high-speed rail funding, the sort of unified national vision that led to the Interstate Highway System probably isn’t coming through that door. But history reminds us that the interstates weren’t immaculately conceived by Eisenhower’s brain alone in 1956. Some toll roads later incorporated into the system were already being built out of a need—a need that U.S. intercity travelers stuck in highway traffic or on airport runways feel every day.

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