Mack says the train will deliver convenience — and for a price, luxury — that studies show passengers want.
DesertXpress officials once boasted they would build the line with private dollars, but they now plan to rely on FRA financing to cover the bulk of the cost. Mack didn't directly answer if the company turned to the FRA because private investors were unwilling to take the risk, but said the loan terms are attractive.
"When somebody comes and tells me I will build a system that pays for itself, I'm suspicious," said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, which questioned ridership potential in a report last year. "There is no high-speed rail system in the world that operates without subsidies."
The company is still arranging as much as $1.6 billion needed to cover its share of the construction bill for the roughly 200-mile line. Investments could hinge on the loan approval, which requires the company to convince the FRA that taxpayers won't get stiffed. In a worst-case scenario, the train would become government property if the company fails.
The low-interest loan would be about three times the combined amount the FRA loaned 32 other projects through the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program since its inception in 2002.
If successful, the train could be a forerunner in a national high-speed rail network, while bringing a rich return for investors and delivering visitors to Vegas. It would also give Nevada residents an option to Southern California, albeit many miles from tourist hotspots like Hollywood or the beaches.
The company is seeking funds at a time when a proposed high-speed train running from San Francisco to Southern California has been questioned because of ballooning costs and fear it will sap taxpayer dollars.
Early company research projected the train would lure away nearly one in four car, bus and airline travelers, initially about 4 million people annually. The company now pegs first-year ridership at about 3 million, but that projection was trimmed to 2.5 million by government analysts who urged more study.
The risks are summarized in a 2007 study commissioned by ACS Infrastructure North America, a division of a global construction company that DesertXpress says is seeking a role in the project, that found most travelers were "broadly happy" going to Las Vegas by car or airline. While most travelers would be open to riding a train, the report warned the company would need to lure riders with pampering.
On clear roads, the 270-mile drive from downtown Los Angeles to Las Vegas takes about four hours. Planners say the train ride from Victorville to Las Vegas would take about 80 minutes, but it's debatable how much time would be saved after parking, boarding the train and reaching a Las Vegas hotel.
Round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Las Vegas can be booked for under $100.
The dream of uniting Southern California and Las Vegas by high-speed rail has been discussed for decades. In the mid-1980s, Las Vegas officials predicted a line would be running by 2000. DesertXpress, which would roughly parallel Interstate-15 on a pair of new tracks, has predicted for several years that it would soon break ground.
Reid initially backed a rival project that planned to use magnetic power to reach Orange County, but he jumped trains shortly after Rogich became co-chair of Republicans for Reid, a Nevada group with ties to the gambling industry that helped Reid win re-election in 2010.
The senator's office disputes any connection between his flip and Rogich's involvement in the campaign. Spokeswoman Kristen Orthman says Reid's decision was based on the viability of DesertXpress, while the magnetically powered project languished.
Marnell, another member of Republicans for Reid, is president of one of several companies under the DesertXpress corporate banner. He and his son, M Resort, Spa and Casino President Anthony Marnell III, are also investors.