Transportation

A maglev would be a speedy option over protected land. But research and wildlife might suffer.

A maglev would be a speedy option over protected land. But research and wildlife might suffer.

A magnetic-levitation train, or maglev, undergoes testing in Yamanashi, Japan, on June 4. (Ko Sasaki for The Washington Post)

A high-speed train that would take passengers from Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes as an alternative to traffic-choked roads would cut through a swath of public land, raising alarms among researchers who say hundreds of acres of forests and sensitive areas would be destroyed.

The 40-mile superconducting system for the magnetic-levitation train, or maglev, would travel aboveground for up to nine of those miles, crossing or touching upon some of the leading federal research facilities in the country. The path includes the nation’s largest agricultural scientific installation and the only National Wildlife Refuge established to support research.

Proponents have pitched the maglev train as a travel alternative — the first step in a broader plan to expand high-speed rail across the Northeast Corridor. The proposal, which is meandering through a lengthy federal review process, has drawn mixed reactions but could get clearance to proceed as early as this year.

Its two proposed alignments — east and west of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway — would cut through woods and permanently alter parks, recreational facilities and wetlands. As many as 1,000 acres, including up to 328 acres of federal land, would be affected, according to a federal environmental review.

Proposed MAGLEV options

Aboveground

Tunnel

Possible stations

Possible train maintenance facility

Baltimore

Inner Harbor

Cherry Hill

MARYLAND

HOWARD

co.

Columbia

BWI

295

97

Anne arundel

co.

Fort

Meade

MONTGOMERY

co.

Laurel

32

Patuxent

Research

Refuge

3

Beltsville Agric.

Research Ctr.

97

Bowie

NASA

197

295

301

50

D.C.

PRINCE GEORGE’S

co.

5 MILES

Mt. Vernon Square

Proposed MAGLEV options

Aboveground

Tunnel

Possible stations

Possible train maintenance facility

Baltimore

Inner Harbor

Cherry Hill

MARYLAND

HOWARD

co.

Columbia

BWI

295

97

Anne arundel

co.

Fort

Meade

MONTGOMERY

co.

Laurel

32

Patuxent

Research

Refuge

3

Beltsville Agric.

Research Ctr.

97

Bowie

NASA

197

295

301

50

D.C.

PRINCE GEORGE’S

co.

5 MILES

Mt. Vernon Square

Proposed MAGLEV options

Aboveground

Tunnel

Possible stations

Possible train maintenance facility

Baltimore

Inner Harbor

Cherry Hill

MARYLAND

HOWARD

co.

Columbia

BWI

295

97

Anne arundel

co.

Fort

Meade

Laurel

32

Patuxent

Research

Refuge

MONTGOMERY

co.

3

Beltsville Agric.

Research Ctr.

97

Bowie

NASA

197

295

301

50

D.C.

PRINCE GEORGE’S

co.

5 MILES

Mt. Vernon Square

Viaducts and ancillary facilities, such as emergency exits and power substations, are planned on and adjacent to land that belongs to the National Park Service, NASA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Secret Service, the National Security Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Fort Meade.

Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, which is developing the system with sister company Northeast Maglev, said the line is planned as close to the parkway as possible to minimize bisecting large areas home to sensitive species and habitats.

The company said routes under consideration would have the least effect on homes and other private property, keeping the project economically feasible. Measures that include the replanting of trees would be established to reduce impacts, the project proponents said.

The plan calls for a 180-acre paved maintenance yard on public land. Environmentalists and wildlife experts say viaducts and the maintenance yard would mar the land, now a protected green splotch in the middle of the heavily populated Washington-Baltimore corridor.

Wildlife biologist Sam Droege at Patuxent Wildlife Refuge on Feb. 25 in Laurel, Md. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

“This is an Earth-built landscape millions of years in the making,” said Sam Droege, a wildlife biologist who has spent two decades conducting research in the area. “When you crush, excavate and finally smother this land with fill and concrete, you destroy forever an entire interlocked, respiring and breathing community, the home for thousands of organisms living deep in the soil up to the treetops. You don’t get it back.”

Disruptions for a protected refuge

The Baltimore-Washington corridor has been touted as the ideal location in the United States to bring maglev technology, which has been tested in Japan and China. It harnesses powerful magnetic forces that lift and propel trains at high speeds.

A maglev train passes in Tsuru City in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan, on May 11, 2010. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg News)

Trains between D.C. and Baltimore would travel as fast as 311 mph, proponents say.

When the Federal Railroad Administration issued a draft review of the project in January, it laid out economic and environmental effects of the project, planned as the first leg of a rail system that would carry passengers between Washington and New York in an hour.

Amid opposition from civic associations and elected officials in the project’s path — and after more than a year of delays — the FRA is nearing completion of a review that could lead to tunneling as early as next year. The train could begin operating by 2030.

The project would cost between $13.8 billion and $16.8 billion, the federal agency said. It noted potential disruptions to businesses and property along the route but also up to $10.6 billion in wages to workers over seven years of construction.

The maglev train would help cut greenhouse gas emissions, taking about 16 million car trips off the road annually by 2045, according to the FRA.

But it also would run through the edge of public terrain that has been guarded for decades.

The project’s federal environmental reports describe a viaduct trekking through wooded sections parallel to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and a maintenance facility that would cut down trees and require fill to meet level grade requirements. One possible site for the train yard, along Maryland Route 198, would require a reroute of the Little Patuxent River.

Northeast Maglev disputes assertions from environmental advocates that the train would destroy green spaces. The company said its facilities are planned largely on previously disturbed land and points to other nonagricultural uses in the area, including Secret Service training camps, NASA operations and a nearby Metro maintenance yard.

Scientists and environmental activists, however, say they fear the project’s route would remove native plants and animals, breaking apart a space that serves as a refuge for thousands of migrating birds.

Audubon Maryland-D.C., a subsidiary of the nonprofit conservation National Audubon Society, sent a mass email calling on its members to oppose the project.

An anti-maglev sign in front of a home on Hedgewood Drive in Greenbelt, Md., on Dec. 20. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“It’s noteworthy that this is not public transportation,” the email said. “There are no stops between Baltimore and Washington and the train would cater to only the city’s most wealthy residents.”

The expected average fare would be $60 for a one-way trip, although it could vary between $27 and $80 per trip, project documents indicate. The train would make three stops: the District, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport and Baltimore.

The project’s environmental reports conclude that construction “would result in irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources,” and that “resources considered scarce or rare, such as ecologically sensitive areas and historic resources are of particular concern.”

Wayne Rogers, chief executive of Northeast Maglev and Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, said those phrases are not unique to the maglev project.

“It is boilerplate language,” Rogers said, noting that under federal law, environmental reviews must include details of any “irreversible” impacts on resources. “Pointing to it as a conclusion is misleading.”

On a list of items that would be damaged, the FRA lists ecologically sensitive areas and water resources, including wetlands, streams and floodplains on undeveloped land owned by the federal government.

‘Taking a conservation area’

The maglev train would travel in a tunnel in the District, avoiding densely populated communities. It would emerge in Prince George’s County near the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center — the world’s largest agricultural research complex.

Moving north, it would cross parts of the Patuxent Research Refuge, a 12,750-acre safe haven for more than 270 species of birds and other wildlife. It would pass near NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and touch upon U.S. Secret Service and National Security Agency property before returning to a tunnel at Fort George G. Meade. The maglev would then continue north in a tunnel toward BWI and into its terminus in either downtown or south Baltimore.

The Patuxent River, seen Feb. 25 in Laurel, Md., is one of many impacted areas from a proposed maglev train. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

By keeping the train line aboveground in much of the midsection of the route, Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail would save billions of dollars. Tunneling costs nearly three times more than building above ground, Northeast Maglev said.

A full underground train line would require more ancillary facilities needed to support train operations, such as emergency exits, which would be located about every 3½ miles in tunneled sections.

Maryland Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s), who represents sections of the proposed route near the Patuxent Research Refuge, said the region’s public resources shouldn’t bear the brunt for a business seeking profits.

“They chose to come above ground and spend most of the time above ground in Prince George’s County on a purely economic basis, because it was less costly than building it underground,” Valentino-Smith said. “I have serious concerns and reservations. It’s purely for profit motive.”

Project developers would need to acquire the property for the maintenance yard and the route, most of it from the federal government, a process that probably would require congressional action. That process will not be determined until a final route is selected.

Project officials say their preferred alignment, on the east side of the Parkway, has the least impact, cutting through woods and affecting about 80 acres in three public parks instead of up to seven parks in the west alignment.

That route would cross public woodlands in the north end of Patuxent Research Refuge, taking roughly 24 acres. There, the viaduct and ancillary facilities would enter an area used for hunting and conservation programs and cross part of a trail system that provides fishing access to Blue Heron Pond.

The Patuxent Research Refuge on Feb. 25 in Laurel, Md. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Droege, right, and Friends of Patuxent board member and volunteer Stephanie Kaufman at Patuxent Research Refuge on Feb. 25. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
LEFT: The Patuxent Research Refuge on Feb. 25 in Laurel, Md. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Droege, right, and Friends of Patuxent board member and volunteer Stephanie Kaufman at Patuxent Research Refuge on Feb. 25. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

“You can squish all this and don’t have a people problem, at least in terms of taking down houses,” Droege, the wildlife biologist, said during a recent visit to the refuge. “But it is a problem when you are taking a conservation area that has endangered species, has endangered habitats.”

The maintenance facility has been reduced in size to 180 acres from the original 235-acre footprint. It would provide train storage, maintenance shops, factory and repair shops, cleaning facilities, train inspection facilities and offices. A road grid to access the facility, including to handle heavy machinery during construction, also would be built.

Northeast Maglev’s preferred location for a yard is the west side of the agricultural research center on forested land between Powder Mill Road and Odell Road. Construction and operation of the facility at that location or another area on the east side would be inconsistent with Prince George’s County plans, which seek to keep the agricultural research center as a natural area.

Northeast Maglev, however, notes that in the footprint of the western site, there are more than a dozen “derelict buildings” the USDA is planning to demolish. Building the train yard there would require up to 56 feet of fill to raise to the site.

Public benefits on public lands

The Department of Agriculture declined to comment on the proposal, as did the Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which are under the Interior Department. The agencies said their departments will comment on the project before a comment period closes May 24. Public hearings are scheduled this month.

NASA cited “detrimental impacts” of placing the maintenance facility at the USDA site east of the Parkway, which would be near the Goddard Geophysical and Astronomical Observatory in Greenbelt.

“Any impacts from the [superconducting maglev] project on our science and mission would be of great concern,” Beth Montgomery, a NASA official, wrote to federal and state transportation officials last summer. She cited disruptions to “a number of NASA activities that require minimal disturbances from vibration, artificial lighting and electromagnetic interference.”

The NASA site near an old paved airfield has systems that track satellites, measure the Earth’s rotation and “establish a global reference point that is used to accurately determine the orbits of satellites and geolocate their Earth observations.” The site also hosts optical telescopes, an X-Ray beam line and neutron spectroscopy experiments, Montgomery said.

Although other locations were considered for a train yard outside the federal properties, project officials said those weren’t suitable. The alternatives, they said, would have required facilities across a number of sites, potentially having a greater effect on operations and nearby communities.

Northeast Maglev officials said the route’s midsection is ideal for the maintenance yard because it is between the two end stations, which would reduce travel time for night maintenance and other uses.

Rogers noted the area already is bisected by the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, there are more than 6,000 acres of land and parts of the agricultural research land already is used for other purposes.

Metro has a 75-acre rail yard that was formerly part of the research area and the Secret Service runs a training facility there, which Rogers said “includes an active gun range with noise of gunfire frequently the loudest noise impact.”

Critics say those uses are for the benefit of the public, including Metro, which receives public funding. Maglev officials countered that their service also would bring a public benefit.

Stephanie Kaufman, a Friends of Patuxent board member, said handing out federal property to a private developer would set a bad precedent of exploiting public land, parts of which are popular for hiking, biking and birdwatching.

“If you allow this, that opens the door to other requests. And how would you say it’s okay for maglev, but it’s not okay for the person who wants to put a landfill there?” she said.

Map by Laris Karklis. Map data sourced from Baltimore-Washington Superconducting Maglev Project

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