Exaggerating Traffic Delays, but Not Taxpayer Risk: The Las Vegas XpressWest High Speed Rail Line

Large government financed infrastructure programs are often justified by promoters on the basis of apocalyptic delusions about the intolerable future that would face the public if the projects are not built. A case in point is the Victorville California to Las Vegas high-speed rail proposal, called “Xpress West” (formerly called “Desert Xpress”). Planning documentation alarmingly suggested that travel delays between Las Vegas and Los Angeles could reach seven hours in the next decade.

Nonetheless, supported by the hope of a subsidized interest rate loan of $5.5 billion or more from federal taxpayers, promoters continue to paint a picture of justification that does not stand up to scrutiny.

This is not to suggest there is not traffic congestion between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The problem for this project is that virtually all the congestion on weekend travel between Los Angeles and Las Vegas occurs before Victorville, where it is assumed that people would leave their car to get on a train to finish the trip, instead of driving on to Las Vegas with little or no congestion. The return trip is somewhat different, with traffic congestion occurring between Las Vegas and Victorville.

We monitored traffic conditions and delays as reported by Google Maps on two recent weekends. These included Labor Day, one of the busiest holiday weekends, and the weekend following Labor Day.

Labor Day Weekend (August 31-September 3): On the Friday preceding Labor Day weekend (August 31), all of the traffic delays were between the Los Angeles area and Victorville, the section of the trip over which the train would not operate. Drivers experienced up to 61 minutes of delay between Los Angeles and the Victorville station location (Note 1). However, no delays were experienced between the Victorville station location and Las Vegas, the section of the trip over which the train would operate. Thus, if the train had been in operation, drivers not switching to the train would have encountered no traffic delays by staying in their cars.

As would be expected, on Monday Sept. 3, 2012, the last day of the Labor Day weekend, there were traffic delays between Las Vegas and the Victorville station location. The maximum delay reached nearly one hour, and delays exceeded 30 minutes for approximately seven hours.  In the worst case, a round trip driver would have avoided one hour of delay (30 minutes in each direction) by taking the train.

The Next Weekend (September 7-9): On the following two-day weekend, there was less traffic congestion between Los Angeles and Victorville. There were also delays of up to 10 minutes between Victorville and Las Vegas. A driver switching to the train would have lost more time by exiting the freeway and getting to the station than he would by continuing on the I-15 to Las Vegas.

Fewer travel delays were encountered on the Sunday return trip than on Labor Day weekend. The peak delay was 34 minutes, and 30 minute delays were exceeded for two hours (Figure 4). For a round-trip, a driver switching to the train in Victorville would have avoided, at most, 44 minutes or an average of 22 minutes in each direction.

Assessment: During the two recent weekends, from 87 percent to 100 percent of the traffic delay between Los Angeles and Las Vegas was encountered before reaching the Victorville station location. The train would do nothing to reduce this delay because the closest it reaches to Los Angeles is Victorville.

The minimal delays on, at most, two days per week are likely to fall short of attracting sufficient numbers of drivers for Xpress West to cover its costs, much less pay back the federal loan (if approved). A more detailed analysis will be found in our Reason Foundation “Xpress West” analysis. Among the most important findings were that (1) the planning assumptions for the train are based upon old, pre-recession data, (2) that ridership is unlikely to remotely reach the numbers projected by the promoters, (3) that huge losses are likely to occur, making it impossible to repay federal taxpayers.

A Solyndra-Style Loan Default Seems Likely: This could lead to a taxpayer loss of up to $6.5 billion, more than 10 times the amount taxpayers lost in the Solyndra bankruptcy.

Resources:

XpressWest: The XpressWest High-Speed Rail Line from Victorville to Las Vegas: A Taxpayer Risk Analysis

Las Vegas Monorail: Wendell Cox was also author of  ”Analysis of the Proposed Las Vegas LLC Monorail,” which indicated that ridership and revenue projections were extremely optimistic and that the project was likely to fail  financially. Subsequently the project filed bankruptcy and defaulted on bonds. The actual ridership on the Monorail was within the range predicted in “Analysis of the proposed Las Vegas LLC Monorail,” and far below the level forecast by project consultant URS Greiner Woodward Clyde. The Las Vegas Monorail case is described in the Reason Foundation report.

Notes:

(1) These estimates include a “congestion cushion,” which is additional time that people add to their planned travel times when they have tickets to travel on a scheduled transportation service, such as a train or a plane. This congestion cushion is added to expected travel times, which vary based upon expected traffic conditions by day and time of day.

(2) This article is adapted from articles posted at the Reason Foundation website. More information at The XpressWest Train to Las Vegas: Most Traffic Congestion Won’t Be AvoidedVirtually all of the traffic delays from Los Angeles to Las Vegas occur in areas the high-speed train won’t serve

 

 

Comments (8)

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  1. Eric says:

    Traffic is only one of the side effects of growth.
    Roy Barnes

  2. From this article and other reading, it is obvious to me that this rail project is not needed now or in the foreseeable future. It also appears that the promotors will not finance the project themselves, but want US Taxpayers to take the risk at a time the USA is overburdened with debt. So, I must ask, “Who are these people and organizations promoting the rail project?”. Once the identity of the promotors is fully revealed, we can begin to determine their connections and motives that has led them to believe that American taxpayers should and would finance their unneeded rail project; Follow The Money!

  3. seyyed says:

    This rail project is certainly not needed, considering that most people traveling from LA would not mind driving the extra 90 or so miles from Victorville to Las Vegas

    • Wendell Cox says:

      You certainly have a point. If it were needed, the banks would be beating a path to the door, eager to finance it.

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