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Sure, build the train — but don’t pretend it will ‘fix’ the I-15

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus

High-speed rail between Las Vegas and Los Angeles might finally become a reality… “For reals” this time. 

However, if it does actually come to fruition, don’t blindly believe the claims that the I-15 will suddenly be a well-run motorway no longer overrun with hungover revelers returning to Southern California at the end of each weekend. 

Nevada’s congressional delegation is pushing for $3.75 billion to help finance Brightline West’s plans to build a high-speed rail line from outside Los Angeles to Las Vegas — an effort that represents the latest in a long line of proposals for building mass transit options between the two cities. 

Central to the bipartisan motivation for such a project is its promise to alleviate the incessant traffic troubles at the Nevada-California border. Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), for example, has touted the plan as a way to divert up to 3 million cars from the interstate each year — reducing up to 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. 

However, there’s little evidence to suggest such a travel option will actually supplant, rather than supplement, the number of tourists flocking to and from Vegas on any given weekend. Even in nations where rail is seen as a major form of transit, the data is mixed on how effective it is at reducing dependence on more carbon-intensive forms of travel, such as automobiles or planes. And in the car-obsessed American West, such a transition from highway to railway seems even less certain.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to the proposed project — skepticism over a hefty amount of federal money being shoveled toward yet another high-speed rail project notwithstanding. 

Given the history of high-speed rail in America, skepticism is certainly warranted. The Texas Central High-Speed Rail project and California’s infamous “bullet train to nowhere,” for example, illustrate the kind of fraud, waste and abuse that can often swamp such efforts. 

However, there are reasons to believe this project is better positioned for success. After all, the corporation looking to build the Nevada-California railway already operates the nation’s only private intercity passenger railroad in South Florida — indicating it is serious about getting things built, rather than merely soaking up public subsidies. And, because the Vegas-LA line would be primarily built along the existing footprint of the I-15, it’s unlikely it would have to contend with the sheer number of obstinate local bureaucracies and political favoritism that plague massive infrastructure projects elsewhere in the nation. 

While previous plans to introduce high-speed rail to the American market have fizzled into stagnated messes of corporate welfare and bureaucratic oblivion, the unique nature of LA/Vegas travel sets this effort apart in important ways. Indeed, there seem to be many benefits for the region, provided Brightline is serious about creating an affordable (yet still profitable) transit option. 

Creating a utopian highway experience between Southern California and Las Vegas, however, shouldn’t be considered a natural byproduct of any such effort. 

One major obstacle of moving travelers from the interstate to a railway is America’s resilient car-centric culture. Americans, as it turns out, love their personal automobiles — despite the ecological damage, financial cost and personal inconvenience that must be endured by driving them

This cultural love affair with cars is especially true for the train’s primary target audience: Angelenos who already contend with significant road congestion on a daily basis in their hometown. Indeed, LA drivers actually seem quite immune to such heavy traffic, as is evidenced by their willingness to brave “up to nine hours” of backups getting to or from Las Vegas — a figure provided by Michael Naft with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors’ Authority board of directors.

Nine hours is a long time to spend on the highway. And it raises the question: Why aren’t these travelers already taking simple steps to mitigate such delays? After all, as inconvenient as air travel is nowadays, navigating Los Angeles International Airport is still faster than sitting in the desert heat on the I-15 for the length of an entire workday. 

Perhaps, the reason is simply that the journey’s length isn’t the most important factor for many Vegas-bound Californians. Maybe, for many would-be visitors who knowingly and willingly endure such horrendous traffic, the benefits of arriving in a car — whatever those benefits might be — outweigh the tribulations of a congested interstate on the way in and out of town. 

To be sure, a certain number of these visitors will likely embrace the option of sitting on a train for a few hours as a welcomed alternative — but quite possibly far less than some proponents of the project seem to believe. 

This isn’t to say there won’t be benefits for the region. After all, even if such a transit option fails to convert throngs of auto-addicts from their delay-prone road tripping, it will, nonetheless, provide another avenue for additional tourists to easily visit our little oasis in the middle of the Mojave. Would-be visitors who currently stay at home rather than brave the roads (or the airports) might suddenly feel inclined to book a hotel room and hop on a train if it offers them an affordable means of convenient travel. 

And given the nature of our economy in Southern Nevada, building an additional pipeline to pump a few more million bodies into the city each year is an understandably popular proposal among corporate and political leaders — even if it does come with a $3.75 billion price tag for U.S. taxpayers. 

Those elected leaders, however, should be realistic about the possibility that even something as ambitious as a bullet-train that actually goes somewhere isn’t going to be enough to fix what’s wrong with the I-15.

Michael Schaus is a communications and branding expert based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary, having worked as a news director, columnist, political humorist, and most recently as the director of communications for a public policy think tank. Follow him at or on Twitter at @schausmichael. 


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