Wednesday, March 28, 2012

From Vegas to Boondoggleville

It's one of the saddest things about politics.

You know this kind of stuff goes on all the time, but until you hear about it, life seems so much easier to live.

Call it "ignorance is bliss."  Bliss, at least, until you learn about more goofy pork barrel spending by people like Nevada's Senator Harry Reid out in the Mojave Desert.

A company called DesertXpress wants to build what they call a high-speed train between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles metropolitan area.  They already have all of the required permits in place, from both government agencies and Native American tribes, and are simply waiting for a final go-ahead from Uncle Sam so a $6 billion loan from the Obama administration will drop into their laps.

It's really a loan from you and me, but supporters of the project don't want us to get hung up over that detail.

DesertXpress claims the train will cut travel time between Los Angeles and Sin City (not that "Sin City" couldn't be LA's moniker, too) from four hours to one hour and twenty minutes.  It's ostensibly the big reason a high-speed train is needed - to cut the travel time separating Angelinos and their opportunity to squander their hard-earned cash.

According to Google Maps, however, the trip by car from Victorville to Las Vegas is only three hours.

Wait - Victorville?  Where's Victorville?  I thought this train was from LA to Vegas?

Ahh!  Here's the first trick in this ghost train.  Victorville is a scrubby little speck of a town on the far, far northeastern fringes of LA's vast metropolitan region.  It's a 1.5 hour all-city drive from downtown Los Angeles, provided you're not including all the time you're stuck in LA's notorious freeway gridlock.

Which begs the multi-billion-dollar question:  Who's going to bother driving for under two hours just to stop at a train station to wait for a train and go the rest of the distance?  By the time drivers get to Victorville, the worst of their commute is already over.  And how do Angelinos - famous for their loathing of mass transit - get around Vegas when they get there without their own car?

And who decides to gamble based on a train timetable anyway?  By definition, aren't gamblers the type of people who dash off across the desert to Vegas on a whim?  They don't do schedules and planning unless they're going to fly.  Plus, it's not like DesertXpress is going to have the robust timetable of a commuter train in New Jersey, or even charter buses.  Southwest Airlines already runs 12 flights a day for roughly double the cost DesertXpress claims it will charge, and flying is even quicker than the train.  At only 150 mph, DesertExpress is hardly what experts call "high speed" rail.  Plus, Southwest already has a far more reliable reputation than DesertXpress, which has experienced project delays for a decade.

Speaking of costs, nobody seems clear about what the pricetag will be, either.  Six billionFive billion?  How much private investment is involved?  Have any private corporations dares to gamble on this project, and with how much of their own money?  Answers are as elusive as estimates of how many people will actually ride the train.

Nevertheless, true to the ethics-challenged spirit of his home state, Senator Reid is pushing hard for this choo-choo.  He and Ray LaHood, the Obama administration's transportation secretary, say DesertXpress will create jobs and provide much-needed economic incentives to the beleaguered upside-down burg of Las Vegas.

Not that pork barrel spending is unique to people like Reid.  Or that Las Vegas doesn't deserve public transportation dollars just because it's an international gambling hub.  But at what point should elected leaders realize that this kind of spending just isn't in the nation's best interests?  Taxpayers have been complaining for years about bridges to nowhere, but Reid still wants his train to nowhere - I mean, Victorville.  I guess because Nevada is so arid, they don't need bridges like Alaska thinks it does.  So a train to pacify deep-pocketed campaign donors is the next best thing.

My fellow Americans, at the risk of sounding like Rush Limbaugh:  this is not democracy.  Five billion here, six billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.  Real money that isn't even yours; it belongs to taxpayers.  Spending tax dollars to develop Las Vegas' international airport is one thing; every major American city, despite the integrity of its primary industry, needs to have a safe and efficient airport.  Freeway dollars in Vegas aren't wasted, since the city serves not only as a gambling destination, but a through-way to other points of interest that need vehicular access.  But a slow "high speed" train?

It's like one of the unofficial slogans for Sin City:  "We've got what it takes to take what you've got."

Unfortunately for us, the DesertXpress is on the fast track to Boondoggleville. 

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