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Federal agency pauses analysis of proposed Baltimore-Washington maglev high-speed train

The Federal Railroad Administration said it paused the project ‘to review project elements and determine next steps’

A magnetic-levitation train undergoing testing by Central Japan Railway at the Yamanashi maglev test track. (Ko Sasaki for The Washington Post)
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For the second time in less than two years, the Federal Railroad Administration has temporarily halted its analysis of a proposed high-speed maglev train system in the Washington region.

The agency said it paused the project last week “to review project elements and determine next steps.”

The FRA on Wednesday evening declined to provide further details on its decision to pause the project that would provide magnetic-levitation train service between Washington and Baltimore in 15 minutes. In late 2019, the agency halted its analysis to give those behind the project more time to provide details about its design and engineering.

From 2019: Federal review of Baltimore-Washington high-speed maglev project ‘paused’

“FRA looks forward to sharing the revised project [environmental impact statement] schedule when it is determined,” an agency spokesman said.

The federal government’s decision on Aug. 25 to temporarily suspend the project review was followed by a court ruling Monday rejecting a bid by the developer of the maglev train line to take 43 acres of land in South Baltimore using eminent domain. The announcements are the latest setbacks for a project that faces opposition from many local residents and elected leaders.

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Sebastian Warren, a spokesman for Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail and sister company Northeast Maglev, the team of private investors behind the project, confirmed the delay in the federal analysis but did not provide information on what it means for the train line. He said the company is committed to working with the FRA in its review of the project schedule and next steps.

“We are focused on moving the [superconducting maglev] project to completion, while incorporating comments from agencies and the public,” he said.

The FRA is leading the project’s environmental review with help from the Maryland Department of Transportation. The agencies released a preliminary review of the project in January, laying out potential routes, as well as economic and environmental impacts of the train service. The agencies have been reviewing comments on that draft this summer.

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

Among those comments, Baltimore City’s recommendation was not to approve the project, citing concerns about equity and effects on the environment. The District is urging federal officials to modify key aspects of the plan before deciding whether to support it.

People familiar with the federal review process say a pause is not unusual but can significantly delay a project’s timeline. It is also an indication of how complicated the project is, requiring engagement from federal agencies and communities along its 40-mile route between D.C. and Baltimore.

In an email to agencies on Tuesday, Marlys Osterhues, chief of the environment and project engineering division at the FRA, advised them of the Aug. 25 pause and said the “FRA will follow up with Cooperating and Participating agencies when we have additional information to share.”

The FRA began the project review in 2016 and originally was expected to finalize the process in mid-2019. Upon completion of the environmental impact statement, the FRA could give clearance for tunneling, now set to begin next year at the earliest, with train operations beginning in 2030. The agency also could rule against building the line — a wish of many residents along the route’s path who fear its impact on property and the environment.

The superconducting magnetic-levitation system is planned to have three stops: one in each city and at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. Project proponents say this would be the first stretch of a system that eventually would move people from Washington to New York in an hour.

Northeast Maglev says the high-speed train would ease travel along congested Interstate 95. It would add rail capacity to the Northeast Corridor — the nation’s busiest rail network — while supporters say the technology would revolutionize train travel, allowing it to more closely resemble flying and free it of delays that plague railroads.

Building the D.C.-Baltimore stretch could cost between $13.8 billion and $16.8 billion, of which Northeast Maglev has said it secured $5 billion from Japan.

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

The FRA is considering two potential routes parallel to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

On the east side of the highway, the route would encroach on federal land, including the parkway, the National Security Agency at Fort Meade and NASA in Greenbelt. Northeast Maglev officials say this is their preferred option. On the west side, the rail line would track along the edge of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway right of way and affect some residential properties.

Paul Goldman, president of the Action Committee for Transit, which supports investments in existing transit infrastructure over the maglev proposal, said advocates are hopeful the pause in the review could be a sign the FRA is taking seriously the views of the people along the route.

“It is a waste of money that would be better used upgrading Amtrak,” he said. “We already have [MARC’s] Penn Line, which could be upgraded and made much more attractive with all-day, two-way service for people going to Baltimore.”