12:43 PM EST, November 4, 2013
It's easy to be cynical about the idea of a magnetic levitation train whisking riders from Baltimore to Washington in 15 minutes. The technology, though not new, still sounds fanciful. The costs of even such a small system are enormous, the commercial viability of maglev is much in doubt, and the prospects that Congress would authorize significant expenditures on any kind of high-speed rail appear slim. We've been down this road before, when the Baltimore-Washington corridor was a finalist for a U.S. government-supported test route for the technology, only to see the idea fizzle from financial, environmental and other hurdles.
But it's also easy to see how transformative such a system would be. Baltimore and Washington are rapidly becoming one metropolitan area as it is, and a virtually instantaneous connection between the cities' downtowns would present enormous opportunities for Baltimore. At least in the short term, tickets for a maglev would almost certainly be too expensive for the train to be used by many daily commuters. But such a link between the cities would instantly make Baltimore, with its ample, inexpensive office space, a highly desirable location for businesses that have connections to the federal government. Maglev would also be a boon to Baltimore's tourist industry.
But the real benefits would come from the extension of a maglev system from Washington to New York, and perhaps ultimately on to Boston. A train that could take passengers from the center of Washington to the center of New York in an hour would utterly revolutionize travel in the Northeast corridor. It would relieve congestion on the highway system and pressure on the region's airports. If the Baltimore-Washington link became the heart of the system, then this region would have the opportunity to become the center of a new industry in America, much as Baltimore was the center of the railroad industry a century and a half ago.
The company pushing the maglev idea back to the forefront, Washington-based The Northeast Maglev, or TNEM, boasts a stable of politically-connected supporters and advisers from both parties, and it brings to the table the backing of the government in Japan, where the world's only large scale maglev project is now under construction. Japan sees maglev as a crucial export technology, and the Northeast corridor of the United States presents a marquee opportunity to demonstrate its value. Japanese President Shinzo Abe discussed the idea with President Barack Obama, and he pledged significant financial support from the Japanese government for the Baltimore-Washington leg of the project.
Exactly how much, and how much that would leave for private and public financing here, remains to be seen. TNEM estimates that the Baltimore-Washington leg would cost more than $10 billion, and placing much of the route underground, which would solve problems related to the impact on neighborhoods as well as technical hurdles, would add billions more. Considering how uninterested many Republicans in Congress are in supporting the nation's existing passenger rail system, a federal investment of any size looks unattainable at the moment.
And if we were to magically get money to invest in the rail system, there's a strong case to be made for putting it into less sexy projects. Rebuilding the Howard Street tunnel to eliminate a major bottleneck for freight and passenger travel, for example, or adding capacity to the MARC commuter rail system could produce tangible benefits much more quickly than maglev could, even under a best-case scenario. Whatever happens with maglev, we cannot let it serve as a replacement for making investments in improving our current system.
That said, there is no project on the table now that has anything close to maglev's potential to revolutionize transportation, business and life on the East Coast. Amtrak's upgrade plan for the Northeast corridor — a $151-billion proposal to deploy a more traditional, and slower, high speed rail system — would offer a marginal improvement, not a game-changer, and even it would take decades to complete.
Transportation congestion in the Northeast corridor is already sapping economic growth, and the problem will only get worse in the years ahead. The question is not whether we will need to make significant investments in our infrastructure but when and what kind. We have a choice between pursuing yesterday's technology, or tomorrow's. For political and business leaders in Maryland, the choice should be obvious.
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