Sunday, April 25, 2010

Desert Xpress Train Nearing Construction; Mag-Lev Still an Option?

I've written before on two competing high speed rail trains proposed for the Mojave Desert, which would connect Victorville and Las Vegas.   According to the developers of Desert Xpress, their high speed rail project is close to breaking ground and could be operating in 2013.  What is not clear is whether or not the Desert Xpress would take the place of the proposed Mag-Lev train or if they could offer duplicate mass transit service crossing the Mojave.  The Mag-Lev train reportedly received nearly 7 billion dollars in financial backing from China.  

The draft environmental impact statement for the Desert Xpress was published last year, and indicates that the route mostly stays close to Interstate 15.  However, sections of the route would veer away from the I-15 into creosote scrubland, and even cross the Ivanpah Valley in the vicinity of the proposed Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.   The route would also traverse the edges of Desert Wildlife Management Areas as well as designated Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.  Field survey's conducted as long ago as 2007 found special status species, such as the Desert Tortoise, Mojave monkeyflower and Le Conte's thrasher would be impacted by the construction and operation of the line.

What is unclear is how much the line could further fragment desert habitat by creating a barrier across the Mojave.  The Federal Rail Administration and BLM will require that the Desert Xpress construct culverts and exclusion fencing that should direct some wildlife around/under the rail tracks, but wildlife corridors are still bound to be affected.   Desert Xpress would also have to compensate the States of Nevada and California, as well as Federal agencies, for the impacts on conservation lands, although the total mitigation costs were not indicated in the Draft EIS.

Rail alternatives for this corridor have been proposed and operated before.  Amtrak used to run a line on existing railways, but the passenger service had to compete with freight trains which extended the time it took to cross the desert.  Another developer is currently negotiating with the freight rail lines to re-introduce passenger service on the existing lines, and indicated that they could be operating next year.   Using existing tracks would obviously reduce the impacts on the Mojave, although the financial momentum behind the Desert Xpress and Mag-Lev suggest they are not going away.  However, one high speed rail option should be enough for this corridor, and constructing a 2nd mass-transit option following the same route would impose unnecessary environmental harm.

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