Gov. Larry Hogan took a ride Thursday on Japan's high-speed magnetic levitation train and expressed enthusiastic interest in a technology that has been touted as a way to travel between Baltimore and Washington in 15 minutes.
During a maglev ride on a 27-mile line outside Tokyo, Hogan was wowed by a technology the Japanese want to sell in the United States.
"It was an incredible experience, even more impressive than I expected," Hogan said after the lightning-fast trip, with speeds reaching 314 mph.
Hogan, nearing the end of a 12-day visit to Asia, announced that Maryland would seek a $28 million grant to study the possibility of a Baltimore-Washington maglev line.
The Republican governor met Thursday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Abe's official residence and signed a memorandum of cooperation between Maryland and Japan on maglev, a technology whose advocates have been seeking a foothold in the United States for decades.
A high-ranking Hogan aide in Annapolis stressed that the administration isn't proposing an expensive new spending project financed by taxpayers.
"This is, as the governor said, a very interesting technology that's worth exploring," said communications director Matthew Clark. "That's all we're talking about right now."
Nevertheless, Hogan's comments could revive discussion of a technology that received considerable attention in Maryland during the early 1990s. Interest faded, only to re-emerge in the early 2000s with then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley as one of its leading advocates.
The focus of recent Japanese efforts to sell maglev has been the rail corridor between Washington and New York, with a proposed first phase between the nation's capital and Baltimore. Proponents say maglev will cut the travel time from Washington to New York to about an hour and unlock the economic potential of the Northeast.
Maglev is a method of propulsion that moves vehicles with magnets rather than wheels, axles and bearings. The sleek, bullet-like trains seem to glide on a cushion of air.
Hogan was joined on the trip by Wayne Rogers, chief executive of Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail LLC, which has been promoting the local phase of what it hopes will be an eventual Northeast maglev line. Clark said Rogers, a former executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, paid his own way on the trip.
Nazih Haddad, executive vice president of the Rapid Rail company, said his company would bear all of the operating costs once the line was running. He said the construction costs would be split between the Japanese government, the Central Japan Railway and the U.S. government, with no need for a state contribution.
While maglev's speed — more than twice that of Amtrak's high-speed Acela trains — has been the technology's selling point, the enormous cost of building a Washington-New York line has been the main obstacle. Many proponents of high-speed rail contend conventional technology would be more feasible.
Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, said it would be more practical and less costly to go with the type of "wheels on steel" technology in use for decades in Japan, China and France. He said such technology has reached speeds as high as 378 mph and most of it could be built within the existing railroad right of way, where maglev could not.
"The problem with maglev is that its still an experimental technology," he said. "It's not in widespread use across the world."
Haddad estimated the cost of the 40-mile line from Washington to Baltimore at $10 billion.
That price tag is nearly twice the combined cost of Baltimore's Red Line or the Washington suburban Purple Line — light rail projects that Hogan called too expensive when he was running for governor. The fate of the two mass transit projects is on hold until Hogan decides whether to proceed.
One of the leading advocates for the New Carrollton-to-Bethesda Purple Line complained that Hogan was more willing to hear the Japanese pitch than to visit the Purple Line corridor and hear the case for that project.
"Maglev is in the early planning stages," said Nick Brand, president of the Action Committee for Transit. "If the governor can fly to Japan and look at the maglev line, how come he hasn't found the time to visit Silver Spring or Riverdale Park?"
Clark acknowledged that Hogan had not yet toured the Purple Line or Red Line corridors but said he was not aware of any invitation.
"This has nothing to do with the Purple Line or the Red Line," Clark said.
During his stay in Tokyo, Hogan joined with officials of the energy company Dominion to announce a 20-year agreement under which the company will supply liquefied natural gas from its Cove Point facility in Calvert County to three major Japanese companies. Administration officials said the deal would bring thousands of construction jobs and 75 permanent jobs to the state.
Construction on the Cove Point terminal, long opposed by environmentalists, began in late 2014 and is expected to be completed in late 2017.
Earlier during his Asian trip, Hogan met with high-ranking officials in South Korea and in China.