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Vegas To Los Angeles Train Project Passes One Hurdle, Faces Many Others

July 16, 1990

LAS VEGAS (AP) _ A decade after a high-speed train linking this gaming community and Southern California was first proposed, a partnership today plunked down $500,000 along with the first formal bid on the $5 billion project.

Bechtel International Inc. of San Francisco and Transrapid of West Germany are expected to be the only bidders for the right to build a train that would cruise up to 300 mph on elevated track running alongside interstate highways between Las Vegas and Anaheim, Calif. The bidding deadline is later today.

Company officials presented the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission with a 3-inch-thick proposal detailing the 272-mile route.

″We feel we are about to revolutionize ground transportation in the United States,″ said Arnie Adamsen, a Las Vegas city councilman and chairman of the commission.

Bechtel Vice President Erv Koenig told the group that the proposed high- tech train, using magnetic force to propel the trains, will be ″a pilot system that will be the first part of a network that will eventually encompass the southwest and the nation.″

Once opposed by many California officials as a ″gambler’s special″ of little benefit to the Los Angeles area, the train is seen now by some as the possible beginning of a mass transit system that could link large portions of Southern California.

But even its strongest backers are not buying tickets quite yet.

The proposed train faces enormous hurdles, not the least of which is its massive price tag and the uncertainty it would attract enough riders to be profitable. The earliest it could be in operation is the late 1990s.

Bechtel officials themselves say they will need to study the project at least another 16 months before deciding whether to proceed.

″A lot depends on what we find in our own feasibility study,″ Koenig said last week. ″All we’re working on now is the existing data, and we have to go out and confirm or deny that data.″

The proposed service would whisk passengers between the two cities in little more than an hour. It now takes five hours by car.

″I think it has a three-out-of-four chance of succeeding,″ said Paul Taylor, executive director of the train commission. ″But anything like this has potential for environmental delay which could foul up the financing.″

Koenig said Bechtel is taking a cautious approach to the project by applying for the franchise so it can do its own ridership surveys and other studies before deciding whether to go futher.

″We’re famous for doing large projects,″ said Koenig, citing the BART mass transit system in San Francico. ″But a project of this magnitude, you have to take one step at a time.″

A ridership survey done earlier by a consulting firm for the commission suggested that an Anaheim to Las Vegas run would get 6.5 million round trip passengers a year at a cost of about $110.

As projected by Bechtel, the train would also provide several Southern California stops for commuters, and could later be expanded to link other California communities.

Aside from financing, Bechtel also faces major obstacles in its plan to use trains powered by magnetic levitation. Maglev trains float one to four inches above a single guideway, lifted and propelled along by a wave of magnetic energy.

The only maglev train in existence is in Emsland, West Germany, where Transrapid’s prototype glides along a 20-mile test track at speeds of about 250 mph.

Members of the bistate rail commission were impressed by the train during a visit to Germany in March, but questioned whether the technology was in place to build such an ambitious project.

″I’ve tried to ride the maglev three times now and I’ve never been on the entire track because it wasn’t certified for operation,″ said California state Sen. Bill Leonard. ″I need a better level of confidence that it can be done.″

The idea of a speedy train linking Las Vegas with the lucrative Southern California market that provides the bulk of the 18 million tourists who visit each year was first raised in 1979 by then-Mayor Bill Briare.

It wasn’t until 1988, however, after a federally funded study showed the project was feasible, that the bistate train commission was established.

Since the train project received its first serious studies in the mid- 1980s, the projected price tag has doubled from an estimated $2.5 billion to Bechtel’s current estimate of $5.1 billion.

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