Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

December 10, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

High Speed and Commuter Rail


  • Transportation reporter for the Arizona Republic, Sean Holstege, provides an update on efforts to bring high speed and commuter rail to Arizona.
Guests:
  • Sean Holstege - Arizona Republic
Category: Business/Economy

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Could Arizona's transportation future include a bullet train between the valley and Los Angeles? What about a commuter train between downtown Phoenix and the outlying suburbs? Here to help answer those questions is Sean Holstege. He covers transportation issues for "The Arizona Republic." A bullet train, what's going on here?

Sean Holstege:
Five states looked at the map that came out of the Obama administration and realized there's a gaping hole. None of big cities in the west, Phoenix, salt lake, Reno, were included in the government's blueprint that the Obama administration rolled out and as director of the Maricopa association of government, if you're not on the map, you're nowhere.

Ted Simons:
That particular map did include -- what? -- Los Angeles to Las Vegas?

Sean Holstege:
It's been an idea kicked around for decades and I think you had Rick Simonetta talking about. It's been an idea that's been around but Phoenix is nowhere and it's the fifth largest city and the mountain west is the fastest growing region in the country and planning directors like Dennis said why?

Ted Simons:
As far as the congressional delegations in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, everyone on board?

Sean Holstege:
That remains to be determined next year. The next year is going to be interesting because we don't have a federal transportation bill and all of these cities are looking for that bill to be the mechanism to find the money that doesn't currently exist in the stimulus plan to build these trains. So Harry Reid, the majority leader is on board. Beyond that, we don't know.

Ted Simons:
It's interesting, you've got the stimulus money, which goes a certain extent and then you have to follow that with a transportation bill which goes further. Where's the dividing line?

Sean Holstege:
Part of the reason is the money itself. The stimulus plan puts $8 billion into high-speed rail. It's likely that two, three regions are going to benefit from that money. Compare that to what California is doing. They have envision a $40 billion system. 800-miles. China, five years ago had the smallest high-speed rail network in the world and today they have the largest. And they're investing $300 billion, double that the next decade. We're far, far you behind that investment.

Ted Simons:
We're far behind but I know you wrote about European folks at a conference regarding this stuff and they weren't sure that this was a viable concept for a country like America.

Sean Holstege:
Let's understand who these people are. They're finance people and they're looking at from the financial sense. From that point of view, they're very pessimistic about the number of city pairs in the United States that actually make financial sense. In my experience, I would say probably too pessimistic. To put that in context, when the Europeans built the tunnel between England and the U.K. and France, 90% of the -- that was one of the busiest travel routes in the world. Until the tunnel was built. You're seeing business travelers eager to take advantage of.

Ted Simons:
We're talking bullet trains.

Sean Holstege:
The fastest train in the world in service is again in China, 225 miles per hour. As the crow flies between here and Los Angeles, that would be a little over two hours. You have to navigate the terrain. Probably about three hours. I know the studies in California said the travel times between San Francisco and Los Angeles were about [inaudible] hours. The time you spend in the airport, in the airport, getting from the airport, in security, it's a competitive time and the prices for the tickets are competitive too.

Ted Simons:
The last question on the bullet train here.

Sean Holstege:
Sure.

Ted Simons:
You're going against Florida cities and Texas and the eastern seaboard and even to a certain extent L.A. to San Francisco. When you are talking Denver, those are areas where you have to go through rough territory.

Sean Holstege:
The engineering will be very costly. Who knows what the price tag will be? California is investing, they say, $40 billion. But we don't know the final price tag.

Ted Simons:
Commuter rail, the slower trains, from downtown Phoenix to -- which suburbs?

Sean Holstege:
The folks at MAG have been studying it for years. That's another study we'll talk about later. The commuter rail study looks at four different tracks, focused on four, from queen creek to buckeye and Chandler toward Wickenburg to Whitman. And it's a different system. Light rail is a heavily used slower system with more stops. It's an urban system. Almost like a bus. These commuter rail lines are intended to bring people in from the suburbs as quickly as possible. Every train has a different objective.

Ted Simons:
I'm hearing northwest, southeast, southwest. What about the northeast?

Sean Holstege:
The reason is simple. There are no existing freight tracks in that part of town. One of the advantages to commuter rail is the speed and cost with which you can build one of these. In New Mexico, they put one together in three years. Record time. Why? They had a willing freight company that was willing to sell the tracks. So we're looking at existing tracks in the valley to accommodate.

Ted Simons:
Do we have willing freight companies? How's that going to work out?

Sean Holstege:
That's the next step. Problem one, we don't have any money for any of these projects. Problem two, then you have to begin the negotiations with the freight companies and those haven't gone far enough to know where they stand. Southeast valley is a very -- the model shows that southeast valley will be heavily traveled. We're talking about comparable volumes of passengers to the Los Angeles system which is a extensive system.

Ted Simons:
What are we looking at next in terms of something happening?

Sean Holstege:
For all of these plans we have to get from idea to plan to concept to engineering, to being an approved project ready to go out and looking for money. And that usually means the federal government. Don't expect a transportation bill for another year. How that bill gets crafted and how successful we are for lobbying for our piece of money will determine how this will get built.

Ted Simons:
Interesting stuff. To think of a bullet train going from here to Los Angeles is fantastic. But if it happens, maybe we'll be around it to see it.

Sean Holstege:
Thanks for having me.

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