Maryland: a transportation innovator?

Maryland is not known as a mass transportation innovator. Despite having the longest average commute times in the nation, its transit projects have traditionally produced mediocre performance for their massive costs. The MARC, the Baltimore Metro subway, and the Light Rail have long under-performed the potential they once promised, and their aging infrastructure questions the wisdom of any continued development.

In recent years, the state’s transportation planning has been consumed with two projects that seemed antiquated from the start. The Purple Line in Montgomery County will connect three lines of Washington’s Metrorail, allowing commuters to transfer between them without first having to enter the District. With a cost of $5.6 billion for a light rail line traveling just 16.2 miles, it’s the most expensive government contract ever undertaken in Maryland. Yet it’s little more than a Band-Aid on an ailing Metrorail system plagued by chronic service disruptions, extended track closures and highly publicized safety lapses.

The Red Line was an east-west light rail line proposed for Baltimore City. The 14.5 mile long route was expected to cost at least $2.2 billion before it was canceled in 2015. With each of these projects, the state spent well over a decade in planning and design phases, and the construction schedule was estimated to take at least six years. To put it another way, it will take the state more than a year to lay just three miles of track. By comparison, the first transcontinental railroad was completed in less time, laying around 300 miles of track per year, using far more manual labor and less advanced machinery.

But Maryland now has the opportunity to take a leading role in the future of transportation. Suddenly, not just one, but two high speed rail projects have been proposed for our area, each of which has the potential to transform the East Coast by linking its metro regions like never before. The first is a superconducting magnetic levitation train, or maglev, which could travel from Washington, D.C.. to Baltimore in 15 minutes, or from BWI airport to downtown Baltimore in 5 minutes. Once expanded throughout the northeast corridor, trips between Maryland and New York would take about an hour. By comparison, the same trip takes 2 hours and 45 minutes on Amtrak's Acela train, or 1 hour and 15 minutes on a commercial airline flight.

The second project is the hyperloop, an underground maglev train traveling in a vacuum-sealed tunnel. Without air resistance, it could reach a top speed of 760 miles per hour, traveling from D.C. to New York City in 29 minutes. The state recently approved construction of the first segment, to be built underneath the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

The economic impact will be immense. New job markets will be opened to workers living in Maryland, as they become able to commute hundreds of miles and back in a single work day. Jobs supporting the projects will also be created here — by being among the first to implement, Maryland has an opportunity to become the Silicon Valley of transportation tech.

The only thing more impressive than the new technology’s speed is how the projects are being funded. Unlike the state’s light rail projects, the cost to state taxpayers is minimal. Both projects largely will be financed with private investment. The maglev has secured $5 billion from the Bank of Japan. The Hyperloop is being constructed by a company owned by billionaire Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX.

Maryland should embrace both these projects and encourage additional private investment in our transportation infrastructure. The Transportation Development Foundation found that 85 percent of total government spending in the nation's transportation system is directed toward maintenance and repairs, not constructing new facilities or adding capacity to existing ones. When technology makes older infrastructure obsolete, government has neither the funding capability nor the expertise to make the transition. Modernization requires the private sector.

After all, the original American railroads were not built by government. They were built with private investment by titans of industry — the Elon Musks of the 19th century. It's time for the 21st century version, and Maryland can be the first to benefit.

Scott Shaffer is the former chief economist of Anne Arundel County.

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