Bond Buyer: Stalled Vegas-to-California train project acquired by Florida's Brightline
Posted on September 19, 2018
By: Imran Ghori, The Bond Buyer
A long-planned, as yet undeveloped high speed rail project from Southern California to Las Vegas is being acquired by Brightline, a private passenger train service operator in Florida.
Brightline announced Tuesday in a press release that it has acquired XpressWest, which says it has federal approvals to develop rail service along a corridor from Victorville, California, to Las Vegas. The company also will purchase 38 acres near the Las Vegas Strip for a station and mixed-use development, the release said.
A rendering of a train the firm XpressWest was planning for a Las Vegas-to-California rail line. The firm, which has yet to build anything, was acquired this week by Brightline. XpressWest
The terms of the deal, including purchase price, were not disclosed.
“Today’s announcement is an important milestone for our company as we reimagine transportation between these major metropolitan areas,” Brightline President Patrick Goddard said. “We look forward to working with the region’ stakeholders to make this vision a reality.”
The project is the first outside Florida for Brightline which runs trains between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. It plans to use $921.7 million in private activity bonds to expand service to Orlando.
The Las Vegas project would also be privately funded but Brightline officials would not say if they will also pursue bond funding.
Brightline will take over the development, construction and operation of XpressWest with the goal of starting construction next year and beginning service in 2022.
XpressWest's plans call for a train line to run 185 miles along Interstate 15, with 150-mile-per-hour trains taking 80 minutes for nonstop service from Victorville to Las Vegas, according to project documents.
Victorville is a High Desert city of 122,000 across a mountain pass from the population centers of Southern California. It is 40 miles from San Bernardino and 85 miles from Los Angeles.
The privately developed XpressWest project has been in the works for more than a decade with the first project application to federal officials in 2005. Company officials say they’ve spent more than $50 million on the project so far.
Since 2011, the company has won federal and state approvals to construct the project, according to XpressWest’s website.
But the project backers – which include Las Vegas commercial developer Marnell Companies as the primary investor – have faced challenges in putting together the financing for the project estimated at up to $7 billion, according to Las Vegas news reports.
In 2015, XpressWest announced a joint venture partnership with China Railway but dissolved the agreement a year later.
In a July update to the Nevada High Speed Rail Authority, Tony Marnell, CEO of Marnell Companies, wrote that “XpressWest continues to examine financing alternatives” and was in discussions with foreign and domestic investors.
“The XpressWest team has done an incredible job bringing this project together and we’re confident that Brightline will fulfill our mission and promise to the region,” Marnell said in Tuesday’s press release.
Although the project is said to be fully permitted, Brightline may have to update or amend some approvals and will be working with federal and state officials to do so, the company said.
Tom Skancke, a transportation strategist and a former board member with the Nevada Department of Transportation, said Brightline’s acquisition is good news for supporters of the project.
“They’ve got the track record and they’ve got the vision,” he said. “They understand public private partnerships and I think they know how to work in the government construct.”
Skancke, who has worked in the transportation industry for 30 years in Las Vegas, said the idea of a high-speed train to Southern California has been talked about for decades. Various proposals have been floated including at one time a Maglev train that would have gone to Anaheim where Disneyland is located.
A study by XpressWest said that of the 43 million visitors to Las Vegas in 2015, 25% were from Southern California and of those 90% drove.
“The introduction of high-speed rail between Las Vegas to Southern California will bring significant economic and environmental benefits to our state and support increased tourism,” Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval said in Brightline's news release.
The project application describes Interstate 15 – the main route to Las Vegas – as a “time-consuming, stressful and congested travel experience.” Travelers often face multi-hour delays during peak travel times, leading to some visitors leaving early to avoid traffic, the study noted.
XpressWest had plans to draw many of those travelers with trains that include seats equipped with TV, internet and games and a lounge car serving drinks.
Victorville was chosen because the location allows for the best capture point for freeway travelers at the lowest infrastructure cost, according to the project application.
XpressWest has also been working on plans with San Bernardino and Los Angeles County officials for a 54-mile rail connection between Victorville and Palmdale, in the high desert of northern Los Angeles County. Palmdale is served by Metrolink commuter trains to Los Angeles. It is also on the route planned for California's state high-speed rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“California has a vision for a modernized rail network that is fast, clean, and convenient for travelers, and the introduction of Brightline service linking Southern California to Las Vegas will help us achieve that vision” said California State Transportation Agency Secretary Brian Annis. “Brightline will be beneficial for our economy and our transportation system.”