Maryland has the strongest case among seven states competing for federal dollars to build the country's first high-speed magnetic levitation train, state officials said last night.

"We have the best chance. There's a lot of independent study that supports that," said Suhair Alkhatib, principal engineer at the Maryland Mass Transit Administration, which wants to build a "maglev" system that could rocket between Baltimore and Washington in 16 minutes at speeds as high as 250 miles an hour.

Maryland is one of seven states chosen by the U.S. Department of Transportation to study the possibility of creating a maglev system. The state has received $4.25 million to develop a detailed proposal by October 2000, when the federal government will narrow the list to one or more finalists. A winner will be selected by January 2003.

The federal government will pay two-thirds of the construction cost, up to $950 million, to the winner. The remaining one-third will come from state, local and private funds. Unlike most transit systems in this country, the maglev system will not receive federal operating subsidies, Alkhatib said. Revenue will have to cover costs, guaranteeing fares that could reach as high as $20 one way.

"This is for tourists, business people, people who travel from downtown to downtown for lunch trips, museum trips," said Jack Kinstlinger, of KCI Technologies, which has joined with Parsons Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas to conduct the current study for Maryland.

A 1994 study by the Federal Railway Administration estimated that 20,000 people a day would ride maglev trains between Baltimore and Washington, but the state plans to generate new ridership projections as part of the current study.

The state also is analyzing about five different alignments for the route, which would link Washington's Union Station with downtown Baltimore and might include a stop at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The study also will analyze environmental and economic impacts, estimate operating and capital costs and decide between a single or double set of guideways, or tracks. By the end of this month, officials also will choose the type of maglev technology they want to propose.

The maglev concept, which has been tested in Germany, Japan and Great Britain but is not in commercial use anywhere in the world, uses electromagnets to suspend trains above steel tracks and push them forward. That means a frictionless, smooth ride that is quieter and faster than conventional rail. In Germany, the design calls for the train to hover about 3/8 inch above the steel rail. The Japanese design has trains levitate four to six inches above the rail.

The cost of maglev technology has stymied widespread development. Britain's Birmingham International Airport abandoned its maglev system for less expensive shuttle buses to transport passengers between air terminals and rail stations.

A Maryland study earlier this decade estimated that the system would cost $1.5 billion to build. The current study is likely to result in new figures.

At their first public presentation about the maglev project yesterday, Maryland officials noted that the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington is the most heavily traveled rail corridor in the country. A maglev project between Washington and Baltimore could be extended some day to New York and Boston. That makes the case for maglev in this region extremely strong, said Tony Brown, manager of the project development division for the Maryland Mass Transit Administration.