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D.C. Download: After decades of duds, Brightline may be the engine that could

Politicians from both parties celebrated the economic potential of Vegas-to-L.A. rail line. Dems hope voters chalk it up to Biden in a tough election year.
Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
CongressD.C. DownloadEconomyGovernmentNewsletters

I’m a big fan of both trains and politics, so I’ve been eager to follow the story of Brightline, the billionaire-backed company planning to build the first high-speed rail line in U.S. history. 

I wrote a year ago about the (frustrating) history of decades’ worth of efforts to build a train connecting Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and reported on Brightline receiving a $3 billion grant from the Department of Transportation in December.

Over on the East Coast, what we lack in a fun economy, we make up for in transit access. Will Southern Nevada best us in that department too? It’s an open question.

The News of the Week: Brightline West

Nevada’s political avengers assembled Monday for a groundbreaking ceremony more Coachella than press conference. The mood was festive, with an emcee playing walk-on music for the elected officials and speeches punctuated by cheers.

Politicians covered in confetti drove nails into the ground to ceremonially begin construction on Brightline West, the public-private partnership to build a high-speed rail from Southern Nevada to Southern California. Business leaders, union members and even former political rivals gathered to toast the new line. They bantered easily with each other, joking about hockey rivalries and the various reasons to travel between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. 

For decades, industry leaders and politicians alike have rallied behind various proposals — the Desert XPress train from Las Vegas to San Bernardino, a magnetic levitation train and even an appeal to the Chinese government for funding — but none have ever reached the shovel stage that Brightline celebrated Monday.

Having acquired the requisite right-of-ways, environmental permitting, land for stations and project-labor agreements with unions, the last piece of the puzzle Brightline needed was the projected $12 billion in funding. While the majority of the project is privately financed, the company got a major boost from the Biden administration, which granted Brightline $3 billion through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021.

The Nevada delegation had long eyed the rail section of the bill as a source of investment for Brightline — Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) worked to ensure language was included to allow the funds to go to joint applications between private companies and public authorities. Once the bill was passed and the application period began, Brightline and the Nevada Department of Transportation jointly applied. 

Brightline had the advantage of proof of concept, having successfully opened a line in South Florida that recently expanded with a connection to Orlando.

The delegation then went to work, bending Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s ear about the project. Buttigieg joked both Nevada senators had him on speed dial, given the frequency of their conversations.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during the groundbreaking ceremony for Brightline West, a high-speed rail from Las Vegas to Southern California, on April 22, 2024. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Left undiscussed were some of the anticipated challenges. While the Las Vegas station is in the city, to be located on property north of Blue Diamond Road near the Strip, the line will only extend to Rancho Cucamonga, a city about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. Passengers can connect to L.A.’s Union Station using the Metrolink commuter rail. 

And for a trip that will certainly save time for drivers who get stuck in traffic on the I-15 for up to nine hours on holiday weekends — the train trip is expected to take 2 hours and 10 minutes — cost remains an open question. Brightline CEO Wes Edens told the Los Angeles Times he could eventually charge $400 for a round-trip ticket — one of the more consequential “could”s for affordability, a key plank of the Biden administration’s vision for passenger rail.

The Nevada (and California) Angle

But politicians praised the novelty — despite plans existing to connect the two cities for decades, no high-speed rail proposal has ever made it to the construction stage — and potential of the project. 

The groundbreaking was attended by Buttigieg, Gov. Joe Lombardo (R), Nevada’s five congressional Democrats, two members of the California congressional delegation, Biden adviser Steve Benjamin, Southern Nevada Building Trades Unions Secretary-Treasurer Vince Saavedra and Brightline leadership.

It was the kind of kumbaya event that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — which appropriated $36 billion for intercity passenger rail — was meant to facilitate. Politicians get to attend groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings in their districts, a love affair that goes back centuries — and in the case of Nevada’s two senators and three Las Vegas-based representatives, say they voted for it. 

Monday’s ceremony fell neatly into that brand of retail politics, because many aspects of the Brightline West project fit into each member’s political brand and message — economic development, climate impact, job creation, public safety, traffic easing or boosting Biden.

Here are some of the flattering comments they made about the project:

  • Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV): “Today on Earth Day, we must also celebrate this project as a major step forward in our fight against climate change.” 
  • Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV): “It's about time! And it's about jobs.”
  • Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV): “Those millions of cars that are going to come off the road means millions of visitors are going to have more time — more time to have fun, less time sitting in a hot car. And I think when you get on that train from Rancho Cucamonga, your party is going to start right there.”
  • Gov. Joe Lombardo (R): “Nevada is open for business.”
  • Vince Saavedra: “I can't emphasize enough how important this job is — especially considering the many construction projects locally that have just finished up.”
  • Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg: “I am firmly convinced that once the first customer buys that first ticket to ride through a high-speed rail on American soil, there will be no going back.”
Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), left, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) during the groundbreaking ceremony for Brightline West, a high-speed rail from Las Vegas to Southern California, on April 22, 2024. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The company has set an ambitious construction timeline, aiming to open by 2028 in time for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. And while the cost factor remains an issue, I imagine you’ll continue to hear about the train from politicians up and down the ticket — including the president himself, who spoke about the train at a Las Vegas event in December, reminding voters in a high-stakes election year that while plans have been floated since the 1980s, it was Biden who is “get[ting] this sucker done.”

Around the Capitol

🖊️Fentanyl to the finish line The Fend Off Fentanyl Act, which Rosen co-sponsored, was signed by Biden Wednesday as part of the national security bill funding Ukraine and Israel.

The bill declares fentanyl trafficking a national emergency, compels the president to sanction international drug rings and targets money laundering in the fentanyl trade.

☀️To the sun! — Nevada will receive $216 million from the federal Solar for All program, created in the Inflation Reduction Act to boost residential solar. The money is divided between the Nevada Clean Energy Fund to build solar on single-family homes, affordable housing developments and community solar projects, and the Western Indigenous Network Solar for All to improve solar access among tribes.

Coal from Cole this appropriations season — New Appropriations Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) wasted no time making his mark on the congressional budget process, nixing nonprofits from the list of acceptable entities that can receive earmarks under the Housing and Urban Development category. The change is designed to avoid the culture war disputes that have sunk the committee in the past, with Republicans opposing Democrats’ directing of funds to organizations that serve the LGBTQ+ population.

The Nevada delegation has directed funds to nonprofits in that arena in the past.

What I’m Reading

The Nevada Independent: Despite Nevada opposition, USPS to move key mail operations from Reno to Sacramento

The delegation is Big Mad.

The Daily Beast: Nevada GOP Senate hopeful uses campaign clash to cosplay as a cowboy

Who among us hasn’t been on a shopping spree at the Boot Barn?

Fox 5 Las Vegas: $416.6 million coming to Nevada to expand Internet access

Shoutout to the Office of Science, Innovation and Technology, which is beating its equivalent offices in other states to check all the boxes and get their federal internet subsidy.

Notable and Quotable

“Candidly, I have never heard a stretch of interstate described as a parking lot more often than the I-15 corridor.”

— Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who would know! 


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