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D.C. wants changes to maglev train proposal, citing downtown disruptions and increased traffic

The District’s comments signal doubts that the train line would be a good fit, but don’t take a stance on the project

A maglev train undergoing testing by Central Japan Railway at the Yamanashi Maglev Test Track. (Ko Sasaki for The Washington Post) (Ko Sasaki for The Washington Post)
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The District is urging federal officials to modify key aspects of a proposed high-speed maglev train line before deciding whether to support a project that would take passengers between Washington and Baltimore in 15 minutes.

As planned, the maglev line and its Mount Vernon Square station would be disruptive to the neighborhood and to New York Avenue, city officials said in comments submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the agency leading a federal environmental study.

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The District’s comments signal doubts that the multibillion-dollar train line would fit in with redevelopment at Mount Vernon Square, but don’t take a stance on the project. Instead, city officials urged the FRA to provide additional analysis for better assessing effects on the nation’s capital.

The FRA, assisted by the Maryland Transit Administration, is nearing completion of a review that could lead to tunneling as early as next year. If approved, the 40-mile magnetic-levitation train system could be in operation by 2030.

Proponents say the Washington-Baltimore corridor would be the first leg of a system that eventually would carry passengers between D.C. and New York in an hour.

Baltimore opposes the project, citing concerns about equity and effects on the environment. Other towns and some elected leaders along the project’s path also are against the privately funded proposal and have asked the FRA to reject it.

The District’s latest comments on the proposal were a response to the project’s draft environmental impact statement. The FRA early next year is expected to select a preferred route and issue a final recommendation on whether it should proceed. The Washington Post obtained the city’s comments, filed with the federal agency on May 24, through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Among the District’s biggest objections is a 1,000-parking space garage proposed for Mount Vernon Square.

City planners and transportation officials said a parking garage of that size is in conflict with D.C. policies to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips, calling it “an antiquated and inefficient way of managing transportation demand to the station.” The five-level underground garage also would create disruption during construction and contribute to roadway congestion, city officials said.

“Mount Vernon Square is a highly transit accessible area of the District and a garage of this size is incompatible with the needs of the neighborhood and inconsistent with District transportation and climate change mitigation goals that include reducing single occupancy vehicle trips, encouraging transit use, and providing complete streets that serve multiple modes,” D.C. Planning Director Andrew Trueblood said in the letter.

Federal panel sows doubts about high-speed D.C.-to-Baltimore maglev train

In separate comments, the District Department of Transportation echoed concerns about adding parking to an area that, according to the project’s documents, has about 30 parking facilities and 3,000 parking spaces within a three-block radius.

“The addition of a new 1,000-space garage will attract more traffic to an already congested downtown and discourage use of adjacent transit lines,” DDOT said.

Building the D.C.-Baltimore stretch of the line could cost between $14 billion and $16 billion, according to a report by the FRA. Northeast Maglev, the team of private investors behind the project, and its sister company, Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, say they have secured financial commitments, including $5 billion from Japan. Project officials have said they also would seek federal loans and grants.

Citing impacts on city residents, traffic and city-owned property, the Office of Planning in its comments to the FRA said the proposal leaves questions unanswered. Trueblood said the proposal should “provide more information for the Mount Vernon Station and its entrances, the station’s relationship to the surrounding neighborhood, and its impact on the District’s transportation network.”

The District DOT also questioned why other locations, including Union Station — already a train hub — were ruled out. Project proponents say Mount Vernon Square was selected because it is steps from the Washington Convention Center and within proximity to all six Metro lines. It also has a robust network of bus lines.

Building the station would affect New York Avenue from Seventh Street NW to First Street NW. Throughout a seven-year construction period, work would close one side of New York Avenue at a time and require detours.

City officials rejected any plan that would shut down portions of the busy commuter route.

“New York Avenue is a vital goods corridor for the District and must have continuity of operation during construction,” Trueblood wrote. “The Maglev project should use best efforts to ensure construction methods that allow for continuous, uninterrupted operation of the corridor.”

Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail said Tuesday it has reviewed the District’s comments, which it described as “incisive and intelligent,” and said more information about city impacts would be available in the final environmental review. The company also defended some proposals the city had asked to be revised.

The 1,000-space garage, the company said, would meet projected demand to the station. BWRR estimates that 3,360 passengers would want to drive and park at the Mount Vernon station daily. That number is about 10 percent of the expected daily station ridership, according to maglev proponents.

“It is not BWRR’s aim to congest the streets of DC with new car traffic, but rather to take cars off the road,” the company said in a statement, citing its projections that the train line would help cut greenhouse gas emissions by taking about 11 million cars off the road in its first year.

Critics of the project have said the region should invest in improving existing rail operations, such as Amtrak and MARC commuter train service, rather than maglev.

The maglev train would travel in a tunnel in the District. Ancillary facilities needed to support train operations, such as emergency exits and substations, are planned about every 3½ miles in tunneled sections. It would travel aboveground for up to nine miles and include a stop at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.

The District objected to a plan to put a maglev substation at a city-owned six-acre property at Adams Place Northeast. The location is home to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, a school bus facility and a fueling station operated by the Department of Public Works.

Project officials defended the site for the Northeast substation, saying it was chosen to avoid residential displacements. The company said it recognizes the city’s concerns and “plans to continue to minimize and mitigate project impacts to the greatest extent possible.”

The District also raised questions about a proposed substation at the recently opened Alethia Tanner Park at Harry Thomas Way and Q Street NE, as well as the displacement of the Adams Place Emergency Shelter, a daytime and 24-hour hypothermia shelter.

Susan R. McCutchen, a member of the Citizens Against the SCMaglev, a coalition of residents and civic groups opposed to the project, welcomed the District’s comments urging caution, citing safety concerns and the project’s “exorbitant cost and the accessibility and affordability for residents along the Northeast Corridor.”

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District officials echoed concerns raised by Baltimore and other project critics that the service would only be available to wealthier 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 $60 ticket cost wouldn’t be affordable to lower-income households as a regular commuting cost,” the District planning office said.

The project also should incorporate better pedestrian and bike connections, as well as links to the Convention Center, and to Metro stations at Gallery Place and Metro Center, the city said.

In a statement this week, the D.C. Office of Planning said it has yet to receive a response from the federal agency, adding: “We look forward to supporting transportation investments that further enhance the mobility options for residents and visitors while fitting within the District’s unique urban environment.”