BARSTOW About 200 people showed up to a meeting Thursday concerning the environmental impact of the proposed high-speed train, DesertXpress, that quickly shifted into an argument about the financial impact on residents of Barstow and Victorville.

The DesertXpress high speed train would begin in Victorville and would extend to Las Vegas by following I-15 for most of the way. The proposed plan does not include a stop in Barstow.

The meeting at the Lenwood Hampton Inn was held by officials of DesertXpress Enterprises and the Federal Railroad Administration. Officials were hoping to get public comments about the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement of the DesertXpress, but speakers were mainly focused on the financial aspects of the train.

"[Barstow] runs on hospitality," said Alejandro Perez, a Barstow business owner. "If this train comes through town, it will destroy it."

Perez was concerned about the high unemployment rate already present in Barstow. He said he had about 500 applicants for only 20 positions.

Other speakers were excited about the financial benefits the DesertXpress would bring to the High Desert as a whole.

"This project has substantial economic benefits for the entire High Desert," said Terry Caldwell, Victorville City Council member.

Barstow City Council members were concerned that the DesertXpress would eliminate up to 33 percent of people who travel by bus or car from Southern California to Las Vegas from the highway. They cited a study done by an economist that will be available on Monday.

Construction is set to begin sometime in 2011 and the DesertXpress could be operating at full capacity by 2014. According to DesertXpress Enterprises, the estimated cost of the project is about $6 billion.

The company had previously stated that the project would be strictly privately funded.

However, during a press conference held in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Majority Senate Leader Harry Reid and United States Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that DesertXpress Enterprises had been invited to seek federal loan guarantees through the U.S. Department of Transportation's Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program.

The company has estimated that the project would create the equivalent of 50,000 one-year construction jobs. About 500 permanent jobs would be created in Victorville.

"Temporary jobs are temporary," said Barstow City Council member Timothy Silva. "Workers won't even live and spend their money here."

Steve Knight, Republican California Assembly representative for the 36th District, which includes Victorville and Hinkley, but not Barstow, said he supported the DesertXpress project.

"Without the engine of the economy moving, then everything kind of falls apart," said Knight.

Other speakers proposed a compromise that would allow the residents of communities along the train route to be compensated for loss in revenue once the train begins running.

Al Martini, a business owner from Baker representing other Baker businesses, came up with the idea of a ridership bypass tax that would cost train passengers $10 per ticket.

"[This would lead to a] fund of $50 million the first year, to be divided up among the businesses who lose revenue due to the high-speed train," said Martini.

Contact the writer:
(760) 256-4122 or kjonas@desertdispatch.com