When you think about commuting between the District and Baltimore, what comes to mind? For most people, the answer is congestion, delays and headaches. Now imagine riding on a futuristic train that floats on a cushion of electrons and can reach speeds of more than 300 miles per hour.
In recent months, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has pushed the idea of building such a train, known as a magnetic levitation train, or maglev. Hogan rode a demonstration model on a trip to Japan.
The idea of super-fast commuting is enticing, but this proposal deserves a great deal of skepticism. Let’s begin with cost. Initial back-of-the-envelope estimates place the construction cost of the maglev train at $10 billion, and the history of mega-projects strongly suggests that the final cost will be much higher.
While innovation is important, the expense of maglev raises serious questions about whether the benefits could ever outweigh the costs, especially if improvements to the Northeast Corridor would deliver similar mobility and economic development gains far more cost-effectively.
One of the most difficult aspects of any major transportation project is the acquisition of land on which to build. Unlike MARC and Amtrak trains, which operate on the existing Northeast Corridor, a maglev train would require new rights-of-way. And because maglev trains travel at such high speeds, they require routes that are straight and level, making passage along existing rail or highway corridors largely infeasible. As a result, the Maryland Transit Administration would have to acquire as much as 40 miles of land, relying on the contentious process of condemning private property through eminent domain.
Next is the issue of ticket cost. A one-way trip on MARC from Union Station in the District to Baltimore’s Penn Station costs $8, or about 20 cents a mile. Traditional high-speed rail service in Japan, an admittedly imperfect comparison, costs 40 cents a mile, twice as much. The cost of maglev tickets would likely be even higher in order to repay large project debts. That higher cost could put the service out of the reach of many commuters.
Hogan has tried to brush aside concerns over construction costs by claiming that private investors or possibly the Japanese government would provide a large share of the financing. This claim is highly problematic. For starters, private equity investors target returns of between 10 and 15 percent in transportation projects. And even if the U.S. or Japanese government extended lower-cost debt financing, repayment would still have to come from somewhere — from riders through high fares or subsidies from the state, or both. There is no free money.
All this raises an important question: Isn’t there a more cost-effective way to improve rail service between Baltimore and the District? Unequivocally, yes. Two projects on the Northeast Corridor would allow for a significant expansion of MARC service, including more nonstop trips.
First, the Northeast Corridor between Baltimore and the District has only three tracks for the majority of the route. This limits the number of trains that can travel in each direction during the morning and evening peak commuting hours. Adding a fourth track would require some use of eminent domain, though nothing compared with a maglev line. Second, the two passenger rail tunnels in Baltimore are more than 140 years old and in need of replacement. A new four-tunnel system would double capacity and increase train speeds.
Completing these two projects would significantly expand commuter rail service and benefit millions of Amtrak riders along the Northeast Corridor, all for a fraction of the cost of a maglev line.
The Northeast Corridor is an incredibly valuable asset and a workhorse of Maryland’s transportation system. With meaningful investment, the corridor can produce even greater economic, social and mobility benefits for decades to come.
Instead, Hogan has used his first year in office to kill the Red Line in Baltimore and slash state support for the Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties under the convenient banner of fiscal belt-tightening, only to pivot to an exorbitantly expensive, white-elephant, hovering train.
Hogan should prioritize cost-beneficial investments in feasible projects that will bring real benefits to the state.
The writer is director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress.