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Baltimore cites ‘equity, environmental justice’ in saying no to high-speed maglev train project

The 40-mile system would take passengers from Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes as an alternative to traffic-choked roads.

A maglev sign on the front lawn of a home in Greenbelt, Md. The city of Baltimore recently came out against the maglev plan. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Baltimore is urging federal and state transportation officials to slam the door on a proposal to bring a high-speed maglev train line to the Washington-Baltimore corridor.

Citing concerns about equity and effects on the environment, the city is joining towns, transportation leaders and federal agencies on the project’s path in opposing the multibillion-dollar, privately funded project.

“The City of Baltimore has several concerns … related to equity, environmental justice and community impacts,” Chris Ryer and Steve Sharkey, Baltimore’s planning and transportation chiefs, respectively, wrote to the Federal Railroad Administration in a May 14 letter, recommending a “no build alternative” for the project.

The letter was a response to the project’s draft environmental impact statement. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the letter Thursday. The Baltimore Sun first reported the city’s position.

The letter continued: “The draft lacks a sufficient level of detail regarding current and future plans for the project which make a comprehensive analysis difficult. The proposed project is also not aligned with significant efforts underway to upgrade existing rail infrastructure in the corridor.”

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The 40-mile superconducting system for the magnetic-levitation train would take passengers from Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes as an alternative to traffic-choked roads.

Proponents are pitching the maglev train as the first leg of a rail system that would carry passengers between Washington and New York in an hour. Amid opposition from residents 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.

Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, which is developing the system with sister company Northeast Maglev, said Thursday the project has support among Baltimore residents and other communities. Some local labor unions and business groups, including the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce, have pledged support.

“The agencies’ letter is simply not in line with the people of Baltimore City,” said Kristen N. Thomaselli, a spokeswoman for BWRR, citing a survey the group commissioned that found 72 percent support for the project. She said, “the points raised in their letter can be adequately addressed as the project moves forward. We have already been in contact with both departments to meet, review, and address their concerns.”

The train would make three stops: the District, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport and Baltimore. It would cost between $13.8 billion and $16.8 billion to build and the average fare would be $60 for a one-way trip, although it could vary between $27 and $80 per trip, according to project documents.

“These estimated costs would negate an affordable and alternate form of transportation to the average citizen, and/or rider(s),” the Baltimore officials wrote in their four-page letter.

They also listed concerns about potential impacts at Camden Yards in the Inner Harbor and the Cherry Hill neighborhood in South Baltimore, two locations being considered for a maglev station.

Although Camden Yards is viewed as more of a regional destination for commuters with better access to highways and downtown, the officials said building there would come with an added cost, including the likely demolition of several buildings and disruptions at destinations such as Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

A Cherry Hill station would impact planned development and put the station about 2.5 miles from downtown.

The Baltimore officials said planned investments in the existing rail system, mainly Amtrak and MARC trains, are “contrary” to the maglev proposal. Maryland and Amtrak last week announced a $4 billion plan to replace the Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel in West Baltimore in the next decade, addressing a major chokepoint in the rail system.

A 148-year-old tunnel is the biggest rail bottleneck between D.C. and New Jersey. Here’s the new plan to replace it.

Sydney Burns, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D), said the mayor remains “intrigued by the maglev project but primarily focused on solutions to Baltimore’s acute transportation challenges.” She said Scott is committed to transit equity and ensuring residents can access reliable transportation options.

In the city letter, officials raised concerns about a lack of benefits to communities between D.C. and Baltimore.

Several federal agencies with property along the proposed route have voiced concerns and urged against construction, which would impact federal research and conservation land. Amtrak chief executive William J. Flynn — whose passenger rail would compete with the maglev system — told Congress in May the technology is more environmentally disruptive than conventional and high-speed rail and that once built, it would serve only the rich.

D.C.-to-Baltimore maglev would only benefit rich, Amtrak chief says

The District has not stated a public position on the project, but has warned it would alter the character of the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood where the station is planned.

The city of Greenbelt also filed comments to the draft environmental impact statement, citing the project’s financial viability and lack of benefits to communities, saying it would “create a two-tier system with a fast ride for the affluent and negative consequences for everyone else.”

Greenbelt’s comments, which were endorsed by the City of College Park and the Town of Landover Hills, questioned whether operating and maintenance costs would be offset by revenue, as well as the company’s stated plans for traffic relief and ridership projections.