Private Sector Takes Up Torch In Fielding County’s Regional Transportation Options

In a period of less than a month, San Bernardino County transportation officials took steps to clear the way for the private sector to take on a major future role in curing aspects of the county’s regional transportation dilemma.
At its July 1 meeting, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority entered into an agreement with a private company building a high-speed train from Victorville to Las Vegas to explore the efficacy of using the I-15 Freeway’s right-of-way to accommodate the track for the train to travel from Rancho Cucamonga to the top of the Cajon Pass.
On June 3, the authority gave direction for its staff to pursue a proposal from Elon Musk’s the Boring Co. for the construction of a tunnel linking Rancho Cucamonga with Ontario International Airport through which passengers would travel in electrical vehicles more rapidly than by surface rail.
The California Department of Transportation, known conversationally as Caltrans, on June 29 signaled that it would allow Nevada-based XpressWest to use the 15 Freeway median as right-of-way for its proposed high speed electric train linking Victorville to Las Vegas.
That breakthrough was followed on July 1 by the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority’s board of directors approving a memorandum of understanding with XpressWest to explore the possibility of its privately funded high-speed rail line extending from Victorville to the Metrolink station in Rancho Cucamonga, which would likewise involve using the right of way through the Cajon Pass along the Interstate 15 Freeway. Both phases of the undertaking, except for using the public freeway right-of-way which was originally secured with the idea of expanding the number of lanes on the I-15, would be privately built and managed by XpressWest.
The memorandum of understanding called for the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority, formerly known as San Bernardino Associated Governments, and XpressWest cooperating and networking with other stakeholders, most notably Caltrans, to evaluate design and right-of-way issues.
According to the staff report presented with the agenda item for the memorandum of understanding, “Initial discussions between San Bernardino County Transportation Authority staff and XpressWest have taken place regarding extending the planned line in Southern California from Apple Valley to the Rancho Cucamonga Metrolink station as Phase 2 of the larger project. This would provide a connection to the larger Southern California population centers via connections to the existing Metrolink system, and possibly the Ontario International Airport, should that separate connection progress. It is also proposed as a viable alternative to using single occupancy vehicles to commute between the High Desert and employment centers south of the Cajon Pass. The Cajon Pass is heavily traveled, regularly experiences heavy traffic congestion, and is vulnerable to traffic shutdowns during inclement weather. The proposed approach includes continuing to construct along the I-15 transportation corridor until reaching the northern point of the planned I-15 express lanes near Foothill Boulevard, then deviating west and potentially entering the Metrolink right-of-way to reach the Rancho Cucamonga Metrolink station. Environmental and regulatory approval would be under the purview of the Federal Railroad Administration and, if approved, it will be constructed with private funds and without using local public funds, using a combination of direct private investment, the issuance of private activity bonds, and other federal financing programs. The memorandum of understanding includes that the parties recognize that the public, including specifically the residents of San Bernardino County and Los Angeles County, will benefit from leveraging this private funding to help meet their transportation infrastructure goals. The San Bernardino County Transportation Authority would have a role in coordinating with the California Department of Transportation, the various host cities, Metrolink, and approving the use of any right-of-way owned by the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority.”
Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding, an evaluation of the I-15 footprint is to take place with an eye toward how the XpressWest train will provide commuters the ability to travel through the Cajon Pass. XpressWest is to determine what remaining right of way, if any, would be available for future infrastructure improvements within the I-15 corridor.
XpressWest is also supposed to provide a ridership report related to its proposed phase 2. The report will include alternatives that evaluate ridership between Rancho Cucamonga and Victorville/Apple Valley, and Rancho Cucamonga and Las Vegas. The ridership report will also evaluate locations to site a station at the top of the Cajon Pass to address commuter trips.
XpressWest is also to provide conceptual plans for the station located at the top of the Cajon Pass and the Rancho Cucamonga Station, including but not limited to general boarding/alighting locations, station platforms, intermodal connectivity/transfers, parking needs, and needs for feeder services.
“The San Bernardino County Transportation Authority is eager to explore innovative transportation solutions that incorporate emerging technologies, reduce the carbon footprint and protect the public interest,” said Ray Wolfe, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority’s executive director. “The memorandum of understanding allows us to work with XpressWest in looking outside the box in considering the possibility of a privately built and managed rail system through the Cajon Pass between Apple Valley and Rancho Cucamonga.”
The memorandum of understanding was ratified a little less than a month after the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority board instructed staff to assess the feasibility of a proposal by the Boring Company to create a tunnel from the Rancho Cucamonga rail station to Ontario International Airport. On June 3, the authority board voted to actively explore the tunnel concept, which is represented as a less expensive and faster means of transportation to the airport than above-ground rail projects, including the extension into San Bernardino County of the light-rail Gold Line, which has already been established from Union Station in Los Angeles to Azusa and is now being extended to Pomona, which it is anticipated to reach by 2025.
The Boring Co.’s proposal, which was unsolicited and reviewed by a transportation authority subcommittee in May, called for excavating a 2.8-mile long, 35-foot deep, 14-foot diameter tunnel, which upon completion would utilize modified Tesla Model X electric vehicles to convey passengers at speeds of more than 120 miles per hour to and from the airport. More recently, it has been indicated that the Boring Company, which like Tesla is largely owned by Elon Musk, is looking into developing electric vans with a 12-passenger seating capacity for the project.
That proposal was lauded by San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors Chairman Curt Hagman, who said of it, “This represents a new way of thinking about a very important transportation issue. This can be done relatively quickly and inexpensively.”
San Bernardino County Transportation Authority officials said the project, tentatively dubbed the Ontario Airport Loop, would cost no more than $60 million to complete perhaps as early as 2023 and would be far less expensive than the completion of the Gold Line or other contemplated rail alternatives, which would cost at least $1 billion and more likely in excess of $1.5 billion.
An attractive feature of both the XpressWest and Boring Co. approaches is that they would involve little in the way of public financing beyond feasibility studies and would be paid for with private capital.
The cost of the XpressWest line to Vegas is estimated at $5 billion. Some $4.2 billion of that is to come in the form of private financing bonds purchased by investors.
Were both the XpressWest and Boring Co. projects to proceed, it would put two of the most visible captains of the private sector in America into the San Bernardino County transportation mix.
Elon Musk, a founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, is arguably the most widely recognized entrepreneur in America at present. XpressWest is owned by DesertXpress Enterprises LLC, a Nevada company. DesertXpress Enterprises LLC is owned by Fortress Investment Group and Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains USA. Virgin Trains USA, which until a little later in 2020 is to remain known as Brightline, is the operator of a privately-run passenger train line known as the Florida East Coast Railway, which travels between Miami and West Palm Beach, with an intermediate stop at Fort Lauderdale.
Wolfe expressed gratitude that companies such as XpressWest and the Boring Co. “see our county as a promising and nurturing environment for emerging technologies and new solutions to our transportation challenges,” and he said the transportation authority looks forward to exploring such innovative concepts. “Investments like these not only answer a need, but can introduce billions of dollars of jobs and development to our region,” Wolfe said, indicating the authority is “eager to see” how those innovations “fit in to our county’s increasingly vital role in connecting people and places throughout Southern California and beyond.”

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