Towns Debate Impact Of Calif.-Las Vegas Bullet Train

A bullet train that would deliver tourists from southern California to the Las Vegas strip could be the nation's first high-speed rail system to break ground. The private company, DesertXpress, will soon learn whether it's going to receive a $4.9 billion federal loan for the project. The train's supporters and its critics have squared off over the familiar issues of jobs versus wasteful federal spending. The proposed train is also pitting two small towns against each other.

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A private company called DesertXpress wants to build a bullet train from Southern California to Las Vegas. It could be the nation's first high speed rail project to break ground. The company will soon learn whether it's going to get a multi-billion dollar federal loan. In the meantime, communities along the proposed line are assessing what it means for their future. Gloria Hillard reports on two very different outlooks from Barstow and Victorville.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: In California's high desert just off Interstate 15, two ravens circle lazily above towering power lines. On the ground there's a scattering of shotgun casings. Victorville mayor Ryan McEachron says where we're standing is the future parking lot for thousands of Las Vegas-bound travelers.

MAYOR RYAN MCEACHRON: Nineteen million people drive this freeway every year to and from Las Vegas. You know, some of them are going to get off the freeway and they're going to get on the train.

HILLARD: Victorville is a minimum 90-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles and it would be the starting point for DesertXpress, a high speed train that will travel through mostly public lands to the Vegas strip. Walking towards a clump of creosote bushes, the mayor points to where the proposed train station would be built.

MCEACHRON: Yeah, we have hotels, probably malls, commercial retail development. It will be a tremendous boost to Victorville, our economy.

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HILLARD: Victorville has long been a stopping off point for Las Vegas bound travelers. And just beyond the acres of new housing developments and chain restaurants, you'll find yourself in old town on Route 66.

SHARON FOSTER: We're really quite a little town, old town atmosphere, before they get into the glamour and the glitz - let's face it.

HILLARD: Sharon Foster is longtime resident and volunteer at Victorville's Route 66 Museum. She says she's thought quite a bit about the proposed bullet train that would whiz tourists from her city to Las Vegas.

FOSTER: I think there is a need. I know we've talked about it how many years? But I think its time has come.

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HILLARD: Thirty miles up the road, you hit Barstow. It's also a popular stop for tourists. Barstow's city manager Curt Mitchell says the train will go through the town.

CURT MITCHELL: But it's going to go fast.

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MITCHELL: So there won't be a stop in Barstow. It's just going to go right through.

HILLARD: Mitchell says about a year ago city leaders decided to oppose the high-speed rail after a study determined their city stood to lose more than 2,300 jobs. Today, on the hope that some construction jobs will come their way, city hall is taking a different tone.

MITCHELL: We're assuming its going forward and we're trying to do everything we can to work with the DesertXpress folks to make sure this as much a positive thing as we can.

HILLARD: Down on Barstow's Main Street, restaurant owner Maxim Atalla is not having any of it.

MAXIM ATALLA: A project like that could just ruin everything for me.

HILLARD: He says along this stretch there are dozens of motels restaurants and gas stations that rely on Vegas traffic.

ATALLA: Here, if you fill up here, you get something to eat; you can make the two-hour drive no problems.

HILLARD: And that brings us to the question most often raised about the train - think math story problem. From Victorville, driving at the posted speed of 70 miles an hour, how long would it take to go the remaining 187 miles to Las Vegas? The answer, just over two and half hours.

I asked traveler Roger Rivera if he would consider parking his car to board a train that would shave a little more than an hour off his drive time.

ROGER RIVERA: It would depend on the price. But driving up to Victorville, I'm half-way there from where I'm at to get there. So it wouldn't be much farther.

CHRISTINE TORRES: Once you're there in Vegas, I mean where is it going to drop you off?

HILLARD: Christine Torres was driving from Las Vegas back to Southern California.

TORRES: Because, you know, transportation can get kind of pretty pricey out there to your hotels.

HILLARD: For most of the trip from Los Angeles to Victorville and then onto Barstow, you navigate heavy traffic, industry and billboards. When you get to Barstow, the scenery changes, says resident Carol Randall. When I ask about the bullet train, she shakes her head. At 150 miles an hour she says travelers will not only miss her town, but some of the best part of the Mojave Desert.

CAROL RANDALL: The colors on the mountains or the spring flowers that are out, and the color that is out there. And there's a lot to see.

HILLARD: If federal funding is approved, the project could break ground early next year.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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