VICTORVILLE, Calif. - On a dusty, rock-strewn expanse at the edge of the Mojave Desert, a company linked to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to build a bullet train that would rocket tourists from the middle of nowhere to the gambling palaces of Las Vegas.
Privately held DesertXpress is on the verge of landing a $4.9 billion loan from the Obama administration to build the 150 mph train, which could be a lifeline for a region devastated by the housing crash or a crap shoot for taxpayers weary of Washington spending.
The vast park-and-ride project hinges on the untested idea that car-loving Californians will drive about 100 miles from the Los Angeles area, pull off busy Interstate 15 and board a train for the final leg to the famous Strip. Planners imagine millions of travelers per year will one day flock to a station outside down-on-its-luck Victorville, a small city where shuttered storefronts pock the historic downtown.
An alliance of business and political rainmakers from The Strip to Capitol Hill is backing the project that could become the first high-speed system to break ground under President Barack Obama's push to modernize the U.S. rail network - and give the Democratic president's re-election prospects a lift in battleground Nevada.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has publicly blessed the train - it means jobs, he says - and it's cleared several regulatory hurdles in Washington.
Yet even as the Federal Railroad Administration considers awarding what would be - by far - the largest loan of its type, its own research warns it's difficult to predict how many people will ride the train, a critical measure of financial survival.
There are other skeptics.
"It's insanity," says Thomas Finkbiner of the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver. "People won't drive to a train to go someplace. If you are going to drive, why not drive all the way and leave when you want?"
Construction cost projections have soared to as much as $6.5 billion, not including interest on the loan. Some fear taxpayer subsidies are inevitable.
Reid and other supporters point to research that shows 80,000 new jobs, but FRA documents show virtually all those would be temporary - no more than 722 would be permanent.
Victorville Mayor Ryan McEachron envisions a bustling transportation oasis with a hotel, restaurants, maybe even homes, on the proposed station site. He believes drivers can be enticed out of their cars, even in a region where the notion of rail travel can seem as distant as a New York subway.
The company is "going to have to market and market hard in order to get the ridership they need to support paying back the loan," the mayor says. "I think you can change the thinking."
Along with Reid, the president's most influential Democratic ally in Congress, the plan is being advanced by casino developer and contractor Anthony Marnell II, whose credits include building the Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas and who heads Marnell Companies, the majority shareholder in DesertXpress; project consultant Sig Rogich, a Republican adviser to two presidential campaigns who founded Nevada's most influential lobbying and advertising company; and Canadian transportation giant Bombardier, a DesertXpress strategic adviser that wants to supply its rail cars.
A decision on the loan is not expected until mid-year, but the company has spent some $30 million sharpening its plan and refining ridership projections. Rising gas prices and increasing traffic congestion could help ticket sales, and the company is touting reduced air pollution from fewer cars on the road.
"It's Victorville that makes the project work," says chief executive Andrew Mack.
Far from being a train from nowhere, company planners see the struggling city of 115,000, once a stop on storied Route 66, as a collection point for millions of drivers heading north to Las Vegas. Bringing the line deeper into the populous Los Angeles area would raise formidable challenges, Mack said, from crossing numerous freeways to finding space for track.
The lot now stippled with spindly creosote bushes has room for 15,000 parking spaces. Bags would be checked through to hotel rooms. At peak hours, trains would depart every 20 minutes. Mack says an average round-trip fare could be as low as $75, though documents estimate $100.
Mack says the train will deliver convenience - and for a price, luxury - that studies show passengers want.
DesertXpress officials once boasted they would build the line with private dollars, but they now plan to rely on FRA financing to cover the bulk of the cost. Mack didn't directly answer if the company turned to the FRA because private investors were unwilling to take the risk, but said the loan terms are attractive.
"When somebody comes and tells me I will build a system that pays for itself, I'm suspicious," said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, which questioned ridership potential in a report last year. "There is no high-speed rail system in the world that operates without subsidies."
The company is still arranging as much as $1.6 billion needed to cover its share of the construction bill for the roughly 200-mile line. Investments could hinge on the loan approval, which requires the company to convince the FRA that taxpayers won't get stiffed. In a worst-case scenario, the train would become government property if the company fails.
The low-interest loan would be about three times the amount the FRA loaned 32 other projects through the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program since its inception in 2002.
If successful, the train could be a forerunner in a national high-speed rail network, while bringing a rich return for investors and delivering visitors to Vegas. It would also give Nevada residents an option to Southern California, albeit many miles from tourist hotspots like Hollywood or the beaches.
The company is seeking funds at a time when a proposed high-speed train running from San Francisco to Southern California has been questioned because of ballooning costs and fear it will sap taxpayer dollars.
Early company research projected the train would lure away nearly one in four car, bus and airline travelers, initially about 4 million people annually. The company now pegs first-year ridership at about 3 million, but that projection was trimmed to 2.5 million by government analysts who urged more study.
The risks are summarized in a 2007 study commissioned by ACS Infrastructure North America, a division of a global construction company that DesertXpress says is seeking a role in the project, that found most travelers were "broadly happy" going to Las Vegas by car or airline. While most travelers would be open to riding a train, the report warned the company would need to lure riders with pampering.
On clear roads, the 270-mile drive from downtown Los Angeles to Las Vegas takes about four hours. Planners say the train ride from Victorville to Las Vegas would take about 80 minutes, but it's debatable how much time would be saved after parking, boarding the train and reaching a hotel.
Round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Las Vegas can be booked for less than $100.
The dream of uniting Southern California and Las Vegas by high-speed rail has been discussed for decades. In the mid-1980s, Las Vegas officials predicted a line would be running by 2000. DesertXpress, which would roughly parallel Interstate-15 on a pair of new tracks, has predicted for several years that it would soon break ground.
Reid initially backed a rival project that planned to use magnetic power to reach Orange County, but he jumped trains shortly after Rogich became co-chair of Republicans for Reid, a Nevada group with ties to the gambling industry that helped Reid win re-election in 2010.
The senator's office disputes any connection between his flip and Rogich's involvement in the campaign. Spokeswoman Kristen Orthman says Reid's decision was based on the viability of DesertXpress, while the magnetically powered project languished.
Marnell, another member of Republicans for Reid, is president of one of several companies under the DesertXpress corporate banner. He and his son, M Resort, Spa and Casino President Anthony Marnell III, are also investors.
Federal records show the elder Marnell has donated at least $15,000 to political committees connected to Reid since 2010, including a $5,000 donation in May to the senator's Searchlight Leadership Fund.
According to federal records, the company has spent at least $270,000 since 2006 lobbying at the House, Senate and federal offices.
Other investors include North Dakota businessman Gary Tharaldson, who donated $10,000 to a Reid committee in March, and transportation expert Tom Stone, who organized DesertXpress with partner Mack in 2005.
Nevada records show DesertXpress HRS Corp., headed by the elder Marnell with his son as a director, was authorized to issue 25,000 shares of stock. DesertXpress declined to say who held those shares, if issued, and in what amounts.
Not everyone in the high desert is on board with the project.
Thirty miles northeast of Victorville on I-15, officials in Barstow fear they'll lose 2,300 jobs. The impact will be "unsustainable," Mayor Joe Gomez wrote to LaHood in October 2010, according to a letter released under a public records request.
To appease those concerns, McEachron said the station's proposed location was moved about halfway to Barstow. The patch of vacant land is so remote the city would have to annex it.