According to Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief Phillip Washington, a high-speed rail connection could be coming back to link Los Angeles to Las Vegas “in the next 12 months or so,” as Florida-based rail service Brightline looks to expand its services westward during the second quarter of 2021.
Brightline has been planning and considering the “Brightline West” project since 2005, and entered a lease agreement with the California Department of Transportation in June 2020 to construct nearly 170 miles of track.
Though the project itself was set to begin construction later in 2020, its progress was held back. Brightline’s parent company, Fortress Investment Group, stepped back from a planned $2.4 billion bond sale intended to generate financing for the tracks and stations — a delay which it claimed was necessitated by pandemic-related market instability as it stared down an $8 billion cost for the project.
However, revised financial projections for the company in January 2021 put groundbreaking back on track: A January 4, 2021, project status update filed with the Nevada High-Speed Rail Authority specified that Brightline West’s construction could be on track to begin in mid-2021.
In an update on the project given at a May 2021 meeting of the US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, Brightline CEO Michael Reininger noted that the company is already “in the midst of negotiations of construction contracts to be able to begin [work on the Brightline West project].”
Reinenger spoke with renewed confidence when considering the company’s financial needs for the Brightline West project.
“The tenor of the financial markets today is dramatically different,” Reinenger said. “The stock market is doing incredibly well, people are optimistic about a massive rebound in the economy, [and] jobs are heading in the right direction. That gives us confidence about our ability to keep the project on track.”
Brightline’s economic and environmental impact estimates claim that the project is expected to add 40,000 construction jobs, alongside 1,000 permanent jobs and a projected economic impact of over $9 billion.
With a projected ridership of near 11 million people per year when fully operational, Phillip Washington reiterated the importance of having high-speed rail connecting these two cities: “If you can get from Vegas to Los Angeles in two and a half hours or something like that, that is incredible…it’s a project of regional and national significance just because of the economic benefit to people that otherwise would not have that.”
Learn more about California High-Speed Rail
Brightline West isn’t the only high-speed rail project on the map: The California High-Speed Rail Project involves hundreds of construction businesses.
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Brightline has had significant prior impact on rail construction and labor
Brightline’s ambitious work on railway development in Florida can point to some of the impact that the Brightline West project may have on the construction industry. The company’s economic projections for its ongoing expansion connecting West Palm Beach to Orlando claimed that the project would create over 10,000 jobs during the rail line’s construction.
Brightline also asserted that the project, due to begin service in 2022, would bring with it $2.4 billion in labor income.
Brightline spokesperson Katie Mitzner stated in August 2020 that more than 750 workers involved with at least five major contractors were actively working on the construction of the Florida expansion, with more to be added later in the year.
The company has benefited greatly from its relationship with contractors on its recent projects. Consultation with general contractor Granite Construction in 2020 on the construction of a train tunnel for its Florida expansion resulted in the tunnel’s construction timeline being reduced from almost a full year to only two weeks as part of a $557 million contract for Granite.
According to Florida rail officials, this success will also result in Granite’s suggested box-jack system being used in the building of a second tunnel later in 2021, while Granite project manager Richard Brown noted that the company will be considering it for future jobs as well.
Amtrak similarly eyes return to Las Vegas market
Brightline isn’t the only service looking to expand its services into Las Vegas — Amtrak, which operated its Desert Wind service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas from 1978 to 1997, reached out to the Nevada Department of Transportation in July 2020 to communicate its interest in returning its rail service to the area.
Amtrak’s possible expansion would be part of a $30 billion expansion plan the company plans to put in motion — one which the company claims would create around 550,000 jobs overall over a 15-year period.
Though Brightline’s expected ridership is 11 million, the company also noted that 50 million one-way trips are made between Los Angeles and Las Vegas per year, emphasizing the possibility that room exists in the market for both services.
Both companies could get a significant boost from the American Jobs Plan
President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion American Jobs Plan includes significant proposed support for the expansion and renovation of the United States’ rail services — providing $621 billion in infrastructure funding dedicated to railway systems. This could make rail service expansion into the Las Vegas area a much simpler process for both Brightline and Amtrak.
If passed, the bill would actually allocate $80 billion specifically for the continued expansion and modernization of Amtrak’s rail services.
Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn spoke enthusiastically about the plan’s prospects: “President Biden’s infrastructure plan is what this nation has been waiting for […] With this federal investment, Amtrak will create jobs and improve equity across cities, regions, and the entire country – and we are ready to deliver. America needs a rail network that offers frequent, reliable, sustainable and equitable train service.”
Brightline West’s prospects could also benefit significantly from the bill’s passing. Requests to raise the Congressional cap on private activity bonds from $15 billion to $30 billion and to modify rail funding rules to simplify the involvement of private rail companies on projects — both proposals that would greatly boost the development of the project, according to Michael Reinenger — may be included in the infrastructure plan.
Not all parts of the railway industry agree on the impact of the American Jobs Plan, though. While emphasising the importance of putting “robust, sustainable funding back into the nation’s integrated transportation network,” Association of American Railroads president and CEO Ian Jefferies raised concerns over the impact of tax increases needed to pay for the proposed spending.
“President Biden’s proposal makes clear his administration’s priority for making these much-needed investments to restore our highways, bridges and roads, and improve our ports,” Jefferies stated. “At the same time, mission number one is fueling an economic recovery. Railroads would urge the administration and Congress to […] work toward bipartisan solutions to restore the Highway Trust Fund to a true user-pays system.”