An ambitious venture to build a high-speed rail line between Washington and Baltimore — based on an advanced technology that has received rave reviews from Gov. Larry Hogan — will open a new headquarters Monday in downtown Baltimore.
Northeast Maglev, which says the project is the first step toward building a magnetic levitation line extending to New York, calls the opening a milestone in its effort to bring Baltimore and the nation's capital within a 15-minute ride of each other.
"The maglev can be a real engine of economic growth for Baltimore," said Wayne Rogers, chief executive of the venture.
Rogers said the firm's new Baltimore office, which will became its headquarters, will be housed in a restored city fire house on South Gay Street — one of the first structures built downtown after the 1904 fire that destroyed much of the central business district. He said Northeast Maglev will keep its current offices in Washington and Annapolis.
Maglev is a Japanese-pioneered technology whose promoters have been trying to gain a foothold in the Northeast Corridor since at least as far back as the early 1990s. The magnetic technology, which allows trains to glide at ultra-fast speeds on a cushion of air, generated considerable interest in Maryland during that decade, but interest faded after 2000 because of concerns about costs and disruption to neighborhoods, among other issues.
However, the idea got an unexpected boost in June when Hogan — while on a trade mission to Asia — took a trip on a maglev train outside Tokyo that reached a reported 314 mph.
The governor called the ride "an incredible experience" and said Maryland would apply for a $28 million federal grant to study a possible Washington-Baltimore line.
Rogers said the Northeast Maglev proposal, which he has been working on for several years, differs from past maglev plans in that for most of its route it would travel underground.
While the extensive tunneling could avoid the old plans' problems with right of way acquisition and neighborhood opposition, it would also drive up the project's cost. The preliminary estimate for the Washington-Baltimore segment alone has been put at $12 billion.
That price tag could be offset in part by the willingness of the Japanese government and Central Japan Railway to subsidize about half the construction cost of the Washington-Baltimore leg to provide a working showcase of the technology in the United States.
Promoters envision the U.S. government picking up half the cost but the state bearing none. They have expressed confidence that investors would provide funds to extend the line to New York — offering a 60-minute Washington to New York trip — and perhaps eventually to Boston.
Rogers said Northeast Maglev expects about 125-150 guests at its reception Monday night, a crowd expected to include city officials and business leaders and a representative of the Maryland Department of Transportation. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is among those expected to speak.
"The mayor is certainly supportive of the concept of maglev," said spokesman Howard Libit. He said Rawlings-Blake recognizes that such a rail line could connect the city to important economic development opportunities.
Don Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a longtime maglev booster, is among those scheduled to attend. He said Northeast Maglev's decision to open a Baltimore office is "a very important sign."
"They have been very deliberate in their actions but have also shown a strong commitment to move this project forward," he said.
Fry said he's more optimistic about this version of maglev than those of the past.
"The fact you have the Japanese government ready to make a significant investment certainly has changed the dynamics of that discussion," he said.
Rogers said the project has been making progress. He said Northeast Maglev had a hearing before the Public Service Commission on its application to operate a railroad in Maryland and encountered no opposition. Once the company receives its required state and federal approvals, he said, it will begin the process of drafting an environmental impact statement that would answer many questions about its route and cost.
Northeast Maglev envisions a first phase that would include a stop at BWI Airport and a station in Baltimore — though not at Penn Station or Camden Station, Rogers said.
Some think the maglev plan is fatally flawed and unlikely to get off the ground.
Andrew Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, said maglev is at a disadvantage to the more conventional "wheels-on-steel" technology used in high-speed systems in Europe because it is incompatible with the existing rail infrastructure.
Thus, if a first leg were completed and extensions to Philadelphia and New York were not yet built, any Washington riders heading north of Baltimore would have to switch trains to complete their journey. Kunz said that would violate the industry concept of a "one-seat ride" and negate any time savings from maglev's speed.
"The reason we prefer regular high-speed rail is we get it up and running faster, cover more miles and serve more people … because this is off-the-shelf technology and it's more affordable," he said. "Maglev is not the fastest route to get widespread rail ridership."
But Rogers said the advantages of a completely new infrastructure in which passenger trains don't have to share the rails with freight — as happens now in the Northeast Corridor — outweigh the liabilities.
"I think it's a benefit and not an objection," he said.