Six months after being halted due to bond sale issues, Brightline West announced earlier this month that construction of the Las Vegas-Apple Valley high speed train is now scheduled to begin in the second quarter later this year.
For several years, the Florida-based Brightline has been planning a Las Vegas to Southern California high-speed route, with many issues, such as where the California end terminus should go, being resolved in time. However, financing has remained a big hurdle. Last year, the state of California approved $600 million worth of bond allocations, paving the way for Brightline West, then paired with Virgin Trains USA, to build soon. However, according to Brightline, “election uncertainty, the lack of approval of a Covid-19 vaccine, and lack of liquidity in the market did not allow [Brightline West] to price the bonds to provide long-term stability for the company.”
With no buyers for the bonds, state treasurer Fiona Ma took back the allocation bonds in November and Virgin dropped out of the project, stopping the project indefinitely.
However, since then, Brightline West has revised their financial plan. In a January letter to the Nevada High-Speed Rail Authority, Brightline revealed that additional equity will be pumped in and a bond sale redo would take place this year. In California, many local issues were taken care of in the meantime as well, including more construction agreements, environmental permitting, design development, and working on routes from Apple Valley to the Los Angeles basin.
Earlier this month, things had improved so dramatically that Brightline West President Sarah Watterson said that construction would now likely start in the second quarter 2021.
“By the time we were prepared to go to market in the fourth quarter, however, election uncertainty, the lack of approval of a COVID-19 vaccine, and lack of liquidity in the market did not allow us to price the bonds to provide long-term stability for the company,” said Watterson. “Concurrent with our work toward starting construction on the Las Vegas to Apple Valley project, we have also been in discussions with other stakeholders regarding additional potential projects to connect the high-speed rail line from Apple Valley to the Los Angeles Basin.”
Brightline West groundbreaking
Other Brightline officials haven’t zeroed in on a date as of yet, but did confirm that the improving financial situation in the country was putting the project back on track.
“The world changed as a result of the pandemic, but we continued to work wherever we possibly could towards advancing the ball,” Brightline West CEO Mike Reininger said in an interview with the Reno Gazette Journal. “The project remains a very high priority for us. “The tenor of the financial markets today is dramatically different. The stock market is doing incredibly well, people are optimistic about a massive rebound in the economy, jobs are heading in the right direction. That gives us confidence about our ability to keep the project on track.”
However, despite a rough construction start now planned, many critics of the project note that it is not a done deal and may face stiff competition from Amtrak and from those who still wish to drive the route due to station location being in Apple Valley.
“Having a station or terminal outside of the main city you want to draw from has never really worked,” explained mass transportation planner Lucas Young to the Globe. “Low-cost air carriers tried this model with airports and failed. Even the Hindenburg, with a remote New Jersey area attempting to serve the New York market with Zeppelins. But more practically, Amtrak has had a lot of trouble in cities where they placed a station far away from the city center. It’s inconvenient. You can have all the parking in the world, but if you are a good half-hour or hour away by car for a train, few are willing to take it. Plus, there isn’t a lot of interlocking light-rail or public transit for the stations.
“A lot more planning is needed. I’m glad to see it taking off again finally, but we don’t want this to become the headache that is California High-Speed Rail, where they are ballooning up to close to $100 billion now. Brightline needs to make sure they can avoid that.”
More details on the revived Brightline West project are expected later this year, including when ground-breaking is scheduled to take place.