The Big Train That Might

Written by Tom Marcinko Category: Valley News Issue: October 2013
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Make tracks to Tucson in 70 minutes? It could happen, but don’t line up for tickets just yet.

When PayPal co-founder Elon Musk said it would be cool to build an 800 mph “Hyperloop” to zoom from L.A. to San Francisco in a mere 30 minutes, reactions ranged from amazed to bemused. The idea may not be loopy, says ASU School of Sustainability engineering professor Mikhail Chester. But “it’s not a proven technology like high-speed rail [HSR] is.”

HSR plans to connect Phoenix with Tucson, Las Vegas, and SoCal cities have been on various drawing boards for years. Proponents claim HSR would move more traffic faster between states and towns than airports, and lighten the carbon footprint of vehicular traffic. But HSR also faces daunting political and financial challenges.

“The stars are starting to align” for HSR in Arizona, says Shannon L. Scutari, former director of rail and sustainability for the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). Millennials and businesses alike want communities with transit choices beyond the HOV lane, she says. One gauge of interest: the 7,000 people who responded, mostly with approval, to this summer’s ADOT survey about a rail linking Phoenix and Tucson. That train trip might take only 70 minutes, according to ADOT.

A 2011 ADOT report estimates rail could cut pollution by replacing 30 million miles of driving per day, rescue 800 square miles of land from development, and save $10 billion in transportation costs. Still, the Phoenix/Tucson system could cost as much as $10 billion to build, comparable to Texas’ Dallas-Houston bullet train project, either of which would have consumed the entire 2009 federal stimulus allotted to HSR. ADOT spokesperson Laura Douglas says Arizona didn’t apply for stimulus HSR money because the project wasn’t ready.

The Tucson proposal is small thinking, says Ben Bethel, owner of the Clarendon Hotel in Phoenix. Since 2000, he’s sounded a call for HSR linking Phoenix and SoCal as an alternative to the crowded skies. “We can’t get any more people [Downtown] when flights are full,” he says. His plan connects Phoenix with the high-density L.A. area instead of Tucson. He estimates his vision would cost about $6 billion, and could be funded by bonds and private investment. His plan also puts to work existing abandoned track between Phoenix and Yuma, which could connect to lines stretching to Riverside, California, about 60 miles from L.A.

But recycling track isn’t good enough, says Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR). For safety and precision, HSR needs new track and exclusive right-of-way, he says. USHSR envisions a nation crisscrossed by 17,000 miles of track by 2030. The network would link Phoenix with Tucson, Vegas, and SoCal cities. Kunz says Arizona, like about three-fourths of the states, is just getting aboard the HSR express. California and Texas lead the way. “The benefits you get are enormous capacities,” he says. “You can carry 10,000 people per hour in each direction. You can hardly move that many people with a full-size airport.”

HSR has opponents. Goldwater Institute economist Byron Schlomach call ADOT’s plan “a boondoggle waiting to happen.” The Las Vegas Review-Journal called the XPress West high-speed project there “utopian.” In July, the U.S. Department of Transportation quietly braked XPress’s $5 billion loan, saying the project wasn’t buying enough U.S. materials.

Chester calls for a less polarized HSR debate. “The question is not about high-speed rail versus airplanes versus cars; it’s about deploying a transportation network that meets our mobility needs,” he says. One thing is clear: HSR in Arizona faces a long haul before it reaches “the last mile.”