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Enthusiasm for ‘maglev’ train between D.C., Baltimore mounts — as does opposition

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and his wife Yumi sit on board a maglev train in Japan in 2015.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and his wife Yumi sit on board a maglev train in Japan in 2015. (Ko Sasaki)

Opponents of a proposal to build a high-speed train line that could make the trip between Washington and Baltimore in 15 minutes are asking state and federal officials to kill the project.

Northeast Maglev, the Washington-based company behind the project, says the 40-mile "superconducting magnetic levitation train system," commonly called a maglev, would be the first leg of a line between Washington and New York — a trip that could be done in an hour.

Proponents say the project would ease travel in the congested Interstate 95 corridor, but many residents are concerned about the environmental impact and the homes that would be taken to make way for the line.

And, with limited public funding available for transportation projects, opponents say, any taxpayer money that would be used for the maglev would be better spent improving the existing rail infrastructure.

"We don't believe it is economically viable. We don't see the ridership. We don't see the revenue," said Dennis Brady, a Bowie resident who has organized a grass-roots group against the project.

"We are concerned that they will end up coming to the state and the feds for subsidies and it will be a pocketbook issue for taxpayers," Brady said.

Supporters counter that the Maryland maglev project, estimated to cost $10 billion to $12 billion, will create jobs, spur economic development and provide a fast, green and innovative "transportation solution" using a proven technology.

The system, in use in Japan, harnesses powerful magnetic forces that lift and propel trains four inches above a U-shaped guideway at speeds of up to 375 mph.

"It is going to be three times as fast as anything we have now," said Wayne Rogers, chief executive of Northeast Maglev. The train would travel at 311 mph, he said.

A floating train from New York to Washington, via Japan

Amtrak's fastest service, the Acela Express, makes the trip from Washington to Baltimore in 32 minutes, and to New York's Penn Station in just under three hours. Acela trains run at speeds up to 135 mph, but more than half of Amtrak trains operate at top speeds of 100 mph.

'Transformational' plan

Known as the world's fastest train, the maglev is faster than Japan's famous bullet trains, which travel at about 200 mph, and some of Europe's high-speed trains that travel at up to 186 mph.

Discussion of a maglev system for the Washington region goes back at least two decades. The Federal Railroad Administration studied a German version of the maglev technology in the early 2000s. Interest in the project waned as the region — and country — braced for the economic recession, but picked up again with the success of the Japanese system.

Japan is one of the first countries to develop and adopt maglev trains.

Supporters tout the Maryland project as "transformational" for American travelers who often face delays on the country's aging rails, gridlocked roads, and in outdated airports. The Northeast Corridor, the country's busiest rail network, would benefit from additional capacity, they say.

The project has the backing of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), and the state has received a $28 million federal grant to cover impact studies. If things go as planned, construction could begin as soon as 2019, with service starting in 2027, officials said.

But critics aren't convinced the system is needed or economically feasible.

Some residents and elected officials of communities in the proposed path of the line are concerned about the homes and businesses that would be displaced through eminent domain. They also contend the service would target the "elite business traveler" and be out of reach of most citizens, with high ticket prices and limited access to stations. More than 1,300 people have signed a petition to be presented to Hogan and the FRA asking the project be killed.

Project leaders say the maglev line is planned to run about 60 percent underground; the aboveground portion would be built on less developed areas of the corridor, reducing impact on residential communities.

They also say ticket prices probably would be slightly more than an Acela fare. The one-way adult business-class fare between Washington and Baltimore costs about $46.

Plans call for three stops: one in each city and at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.

In Japan, Md. governor is wowed by super-fast trains — with big price tags

The project is in the early stages of a multiyear environmental study required by the National Environmental Policy Act. Led by the FRA and the Maryland Department of Transportation, the study will analyze impacts on communities and the environment and ultimately determine a preferred construction alternative. The impact study began last summer and is expected to be completed in 2019.

As part of the process, officials have narrowed the project's potential routes to three, eliminating in recent months some of those that would have necessitated the leveling of hundreds of homes. Two of the proposed routes parallel the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. A third option, the one that raises the most concerns, runs along Amtrak's Penn Line, a heavily-developed corridor.

Maryland and Northeast Maglev officials say they expect that option will be left off the final list. MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson said the agency is working with the FRA "to eliminate the Amtrak route outright and will continue to closely examine remaining potential routes to guard against any possible harm to local communities."

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'Train to nowhere'?

Hogan and Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn promised to bring maglev technology to Maryland after they rode Japan's 27-mile Yamanashi maglev line during a 2015 trade mission.

Maryland has since pursued grants for the project and has looked at other initiatives that could bring a high-speed transportation system to the state. Maryland recently gave conditional approval for construction of a tunnel from Baltimore to Washington as part of entrepreneur Elon Musk's plans to build a super-high-speed transportation system known as the Hyperloop. Musk's Boring Co. envisions tunnels that will cart goods and people underneath major cities in vacuum-sealed tubes at high speeds.

Maglev proponents say while the Hyperloop remains a concept, maglev is a proven technology already carrying passengers. "We are talking about bringing a train that already exists, it's already been designed. It's already something that you can ride on," Rogers said. And it has financing commitments.

Backers of high-speed ‘maglev’ train to Washington claim $5 billion in funding

Japanese media have reported that the nation's government has offered $5 billion in financial backing for the Maryland line, while Central Japan Railway, the train operator, has said it will not charge any licensing fees for the technology. Northeast Maglev would have to raise the remainder from public and private sources, company officials said. Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pitched the Washington-to-New York maglev as an opportunity to invest in infrastructure at a White House visit last February.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D), a proponent of the project, has called it a stimulator for growth and economic development and a generator of jobs with potential to transform neighborhoods and communities.

"I am excited about being able to travel to D.C. in 15 minutes," Pugh said at a recent announcement of a labor agreement for the project. North America's Building Trades Unions are backing the ­effort.

Chanda Washington, a spokeswoman for the D.C. deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said the District is engaged in the environmental review process for the project but has not committed to it.

"It is premature to speculate on the District's position overall, but we are interested in the project," Washington said. "We are always interested in transit options that will provide opportunities for our residents and businesses."

State Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-Prince George's) said most people agree the focus moving forward should be on narrowing the route options to one that has minimal impact on communities.

In a Dec. 19 letter to Rahn, Rosapepe and six other lawmakers from Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties asked the state to drop the Amtrak route and urged the state to "identify and mitigate any community impacts of underground routes."

In northern Prince George's County, Laurel officials, including Mayor Craig Moe (D), are among those who say money should instead be spent on fixing existing infrastructure, including Metro.

"I have repeatedly heard that this is a train to nowhere!" Moe wrote in a Dec. 22 letter to Hogan. "I share that thought and believe that taxpayers need better infrastructure and upgraded services, and not the commitment of funds for another system that serves no one in the greater Laurel area.

"Our sparse transportation dollars are needed to fund projects that will truly serve all of the constituents in this region in a cost effective manner," he wrote.

Community activists, meanwhile, are mobilizing to distribute hundreds of "Stop the maglev train" yard signs, and get residents to project meetings. A Facebook page, "Citizens Against SCMaglev," is available for residents to voice their concerns.

"Now that they seem to be lining up the money, we are more concerned," Brady, the Bowie resident, said.

Proponents say they understand the residents' fears. They say they hope to settle on a route that most people can agree on.

"Our infrastructure is old and straining. The car traffic is terrible. The rail infrastructure is 100 years old. And the airports are overcrowded. So we got to do something about it," Rogers said. "We have to move on this today."