In a few years, if the funding lines up and environmental clearances are issued, California may welcome the nation's very first high-speed rail system, a high-tech wonder that promises to alleviate traffic, reduce pollution, and get Californians to the blackjack tables as quickly as humanly possible.
But it's not the California High Speed Rail project. Rather, it's the proposed DesertXpress. Five years in the making, the Desert Xpress may sound like a frivolous party train, recent federal approvals have brought the line considerably closer to reality than it has ever been before. And as the projected price tag for the state's high-speed rail system steams towards the $100 billion, it is increasingly likely that the $6.5 billion privately-developed line could turn out to be the nation's first true high-speed rail system.
Under the lead of the Federal Railway Administration, DesertXpress completed its environmental impact statement in April and last month the line received preliminary approvals from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. It has received public support from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. It has received opposition from environmental groups concerned about the train's impact on desert tortoises. The exclusive, double-tracked right of way would parallel Interstate 15.
As proposed, the line would go from Victorville, in San Bernardino County, to the heart of Las Vegas. The 185-mile trip would take 80 minutes, at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour and spare travelers the agony of the five-hour traffic jams that often back up on Interstate 15.
"That's a hellacious drive," said John Husing, an economist who focuses on the Inland Empire (Husing worked on an economic analysis of DesertXpress for the City of Barstow). "On Friday evenings and Sunday when people are often going for the weekend, it can be bumper-to-bumper practically all the way out there."
While the obvious attraction of Sin City awaits at the line's northern terminus, its southern terminus doesn't offer quite the same degree of glamour. The City of Victorville is known as the center of the high-desert Victor Valley, just over the Cajon pass from the Inland Empire. Like its sister communities on the other side of the pass, Victorville has been devastated by the economic downturn and the collapse of the housing market. But the advent of DesertXpress has some thinking that a new, genuine real estate boom could be coming to the city.
"I think it's transformative from the standpoint that it's going to put Victorville on the map from the standpoint of it being really the first HSR on the West Coast…of any significance in the entire nation," said Victorville Mayor Brian McEachron. "A lot of that should spur future development in and around our city and will benefit all the cities and towns here in the high desert."
Currently, two sites are being considered for the southern terminus of DesertXpress. The more southerly site is farther from the center of town but has fallen out of favor because it abuts the city's landfill. Regardless, both sites have been included in the expansion of the city's sphere of influence, which was approved by the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission in 2010.
DesertXpress is now reportedly seeking $4.9 billion in federal transportation loans. Even with such a daunting price tag, some believe that the project is viable, in part because the train has strong support in the Las Vegas area.
"I think it's real, mostly because it has a very large private sector commitment to get it done. It's not like the high-speed rail California, which is essentially federal and state and looks like it's going nowhere," said Husing.
If the the line goes forward, it could eventually lead to an annexation of the land surrounding the high-speed rail station and the development of a brand-new town center which, planners say, could eventually be the home up to 70,000 people. Victorville's current estimated population is 115,000.
Planning for the station and its surrounding area is likely to follow a far different strategy than that for the stations envisioned for the statewide high-speed rail system. Most of those stations, including San Francisco's Transbay Terminal and Los Angeles' Union Station, are in big-city downtowns. Whether Victorville can entice travelers to stay a while—between the time they park their cars and the time they board the train—and whether the vibrancy of a station will be enough to bring life to what is currently a plot of scrub brush remains to be seen. (The current Amtrak station in Victorville is located in the downtown.)
The Federal Railway Administration's record of decision does not predict that the station in Victorville would spur much development because "unlike other rail lines, the Project would primarily serve non-work trips between the two stations; use of the rail line for frequent commute trips is expected to be minimal….Although anticipated to be small, there is potential for the Project to result in beneficial TOD effects within the vicinity of the stations."
That analysis, however, may underestimate the ambitions of DesertXpress' developers and the city. City officials say that it will and are already planning for it in conjunction with Transit Real Estate Development Co. (TRED)—the real estate development arm of the Las Vegas-based company that is developing DesertXpress. The agreement between the city and TRED was the subject of a lawsuit was brought against the city in 2008. Stakeholder groups claimed that the agreement was a back-room deal that gave the company the right to develop the station and the surrounding area without a proper competitive bid or request for proposals process. That suit settled, however, and the developer agreement remains.
DesertXpress company officials declined to comment for this story.
While DesertXpress is reported to be planning a surface parking lot that could hold up to 15,000 cars. DesertXpress has promised that the Las Vegas "experience" will begin in Victorville, but whether that means neon lights and showgirls, city officials are hoping that there will be some land left over for rail-oriented development.
"I think a train station in that area could spur a lot of development that would have taken a lot more years down the road would see any if it weren't for the train," said the city official.
The city had already begun preliminary discussions of the planning and engineering necessary to link the southern site into the city's infrastructure; the northern site is four miles from current city boundaries and therefore will require a new round of studies and discussions on the part of the city.
"Because we expanded our sphere of influence to the north of our city to include land that would ultimately encompass not only the station but also the surrounding development," said McEachron. "We've done a lot of pre-planning with that organization and zoning."
McEachron said that the city has master-planned the annexation area for a full build-out that could evolve into a multifaceted community, with commercial, retail, multifamily housing, and amenities such as parks and paseos.
"The commercial core that we have planned around it would allow an adequate band of development around the train station," said a Victorville city official who requested that his name not be used. "The train station would be the core. But there is a band of commercial, enough for shopping, hotels, conference centers and things like that. Outside of that ring, we're thinking possible Victoria Gardens-style multifamily buildings."
Victoria Gardens is an upscale lifestyle and shopping center in Rancho Cucamonga, on the southern end of the Cajon Pass.
While DesertXpress will be designed to serve the transportation needs of eager partiers, it may also affect transportation and employment patterns in Victorville. McEachron said that the construction would generate 28,000 jobs in San Bernardino County, plus jobs that would be associated with the train's eventual operation. That means that area residents, many of whom have suffered in the recession, would not have to go over the Cajon Pass for work.
"The primary earners are commuters down to place like Ontario," said Husing. "So this will add to the local job base."
Despite the enthusiasm and development opportunities, some in Victorville are wary of scheduling any ribbon-cuttings just yet. While Victorville has reaped the economic benefits of nearby Southern California Logistics Airport, other seemingly ideal megaprojects have come and gone.
"I think at the end of the day is that the challenge that the High Desert region has….always have projects like this on the horizon, and they don't happen," said Joseph W. Brady, president of the Bradco Companies, a commercial leasing brokerage based in Victorville. "I'd love to see a bunch of development out there, but I'm also realistic. I'm not going to be a part of convincing people to speculate on land that may or may not happen."
Brady and McEachron both said that the ultimate ambition is for DesertXpress to eventually traverse the Antelope Valley and connect with the planned California High-Speed Rail station in Palmdale. But with the state system facing an uncertain future, many stakeholders in Victorville will be happy just being the portal to Las Vegas.
"If they can push this thing forward and put the money in the ground and people use it, then God bless them, because everybody's going to win," said Brady.
Joseph W. Brady, President, The BradCo Companies, 760.951.5111
John Husing, Economics & Politics, Inc.
Brian McEachron, Victorville Mayor, (760) 955-5000
Victorville Planning Division, 760.955.5135