LAS VEGAS – It's been hailed as the future of mass transit and ridiculed as a big gamble on little more than an amusement park ride. Which is a pretty clever insult, considering the project in question is a magnetically levitating train that would speed tourists from Las Vegas to Disneyland.
Whether the idea ever gets off the drawing board depends on both Congress and the fate of a rival train project that appears to be picking up steam.
"What all of this shows is that there's certainly a need for high-speed rail, an interest in high-speed rail. We're finally getting the attention," said Alan Wapner, a member of the Ontario, Calif., City Council who also sits on the commission pushing for what would be the nation's first MagLev train. "It's time the United States wake up and realize that we need to develop alternative technologies."
The dueling plans are competing for a big piece of the tourism industry: Ten million Southern Californians make the 250-plus-mile drive to Las Vegas each year. The vast majority take an increasingly clogged Interstate 15 that can slow to a crawl and make the drive an ordeal of five hours or more.
For nearly two decades, the main plan in the works was the futuristic MagLev train that would zip riders between Sin City and the Magic Kingdom in well under two hours, hurtling across the wide-open desert at up to 300 mph.
But a delay in federal funds needed for planning the public-private venture has suddenly given traction to a cheaper diesel-electric alternative dubbed DesertXpress.
The privately funded DesertXpress would whisk riders to Las Vegas at 125 mph from the Mojave Desert town of Victorville, Calif., some 1 1/2 hours northeast of Los Angeles. Total travel time, including the drive to Victorville: three or four hours.
Backers of DesertXpress, among them Nevada GOP powerbroker Sig Rogich, are pouring millions into their project and courting Nevada lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a longtime supporter of MagLev.
The most recent delay to afflict the Anaheim-to-Vegas MagLev plan was a drafting error that blocked $45 million the project was supposed to get in Congress' 2005 highway bill. Legislation to correct the error cleared the House last year and is awaiting passage in the Senate, where it has been tied up by unrelated issues.
If it gets the financial boost, the MagLev project plans to issue bonds and seek government loans.
The holdup has given Rogich time to make his case.
"I'm hoping that the Senate as a whole will look at what's been spent to date and ask specifically what is this $45 million for," Rogich said.
MagLev has received more than $9 million in federal money over the years, spending most of it on design plans, ridership projections and other studies. The additional $45 million would pay principally for government-required environmental reviews.
DesertXpress says its project would cost $3 billion to $5 billion — compared with $12 billion or more for MagLev — and would be privately financed.
MagLev's higher price tag comes from its technology: superswift, silent trains propelled over special tracks by electricity and magnetic forces. The technology is in commercial use only on one short route in China.
Over the past several decades, a number of MagLev proposals in this country have never moved beyond the planning phase. That is just one reason many are skeptical either train will ever leave the station.
Among other reasons: Neither proposal actually brings travelers to Los Angeles. DesertXpress says extending its tracks that far south is too expensive and unnecessary.
Even a train that ran between L.A. and Vegas wouldn't guarantee financial success. Amtrak's Desert Wind between the two cities was canceled in 1997 because of low ridership.
"I remain skeptical that there's sufficient demand to make it appear it could be a market success," said Martin Wachs at the Rand Corp. think tank. "And it would depend ultimately on the willingness of taxpayers to subsidize to some extent that service."