Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan might have found a pricey train worth pursuing. You just won’t be able to ride one in this country, at least not for many years.
During a 12-day trade mission to Asia that started May 26, Hogan is visiting Japan, where he will take a ride on the famous maglev (short for magnetic levitation) train that tops 300 miles per hour. There is more to the governor’s trip than mere curiosity about the fastest train in the world.
The Maryland Department of Transportation has applied for a federal grant to study a maglev line between Baltimore and Washington. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is reviewing the application for $27.8 million and is expected to make a decision later this year. Maryland is the only state interested in the maglev grant dollars.
The request comes as Hogan is threatening to cancel the suburban Purple Line and Baltimore’s Red Line transit projects because, in his view, they are too expensive, and the state’s representatives on the Metro board of directors are pushing the transit authority to tighten its budgets, potentially jeopardizing a planned expansion of Metro’s rail fleet in favor of bringing the existing fleet into a state of good repair.
Only a few states are even eligible to apply for the maglev grant. Under a 2008 federal law, three potential maglev projects were identified east of the Mississippi River: in Pittsburgh, Atlanta-Chattanooga, and Baltimore-Washington. Pennsylvania transportation officials returned the grant money to FRA, making it available to another state. Maryland went after it.
But the governor’s interest in maglev is puzzling to regional transit advocates who say the train’s prohibitive cost dwarfs that of the projects Hogan is threatening to cancel.
“There are so many other transit needs in the state of Maryland and the D.C. region, there is no possible way we could see going down the path of billions of dollars for a maglev,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, one of the most vocal proponents of the 16-mile Purple Line light rail project between Bethesda and New Carrollton.
The Maryland Department of Transportation did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
Hogan has called the Purple Line’s price tag of $2.4 billion unacceptable – despite the promise of nearly $1 billion in federal aid – and his administration is expected to decide this month whether to proceed on scheduled construction.
At the D.C. region’s transit authority, Maryland’s representatives are pressuring the Metro board of directors to hire a financial whiz instead of a transit specialist to be the next general manager. They are behind the board’s decision to delay the full expansion of the rail fleet well into next decade in favor of replacing more of Metro’s older rail cars, a move – pending federal approval – that could save $800 million this decade.
But the estimated cost of building a maglev line between Baltimore and D.C. is $10 billion (a maglev trip between the two cities would take about 15 minutes). Although Japan has promised to put up $5 billion, Schwartz said the idea is not practical.
“What’s needed is a decision in favor of the Purple Line and the Red Line, and additional investment in Metro rail and MARC commuter rail to enhance transit for far more people far more effectively,” Schwartz said.
Hogan will be joined in Japan by his secretary of transportation, Pete Rahn, and representatives of the D.C.-based firm The Northeast Maglev, which has been advocating a Washington-to-New York maglev for years. Its estimated price tag is $100 billion, or about more than twice what the federal government spends annually on surface transportation through the Highway Trust Fund.
Going all the way
Maglev experts said the Baltimore-to-D.C. line would take five to 10 years to build and provide dubious benefit.
“It would make no sense to build such a high-speed system unless you are going to go further, presumably at least to New York if not to Boston,” said John Harding, the former chief maglev scientist at the Federal Railroad Administration. Harding retired from FRA in 2004.
“It would be very hard to imagine that the ridership and fares would be sufficient to support such an expensive system, because obviously there are other alternatives which I would think would be much less expensive,” said Harding, who said his enthusiasm for maglev has waned over the years.
“It meets opposition at every point so I think it is very doubtful that we are going to see maglev here for a long time,” Harding said.
The maglev concept in Maryland dates to the late 1990s, when Congress created a program to be administered by FRA. The idea was to build a short line to demonstrate maglev’s effectiveness before building a long-distance, intercity corridor. FRA picked seven projects for further study. Among them was the Baltimore-Washington line, but the state legislature dropped the project in 2004 and federal funding fell away.
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