A federal agency has paused its review of the high-speed maglev train that’s proposed to link Baltimore and Washington with a 15-minute ride and eventually extend to New York.
The Federal Railroad Administration said it has no timeline for completion of environmental planning for the Baltimore-Washington Superconducting Magnetic Levitation project, though the process still is ongoing. The update appeared Aug. 25 on the agency’s website.
The FRA update came a week before a Baltimore Circuit Court judge dismissed the maglev operator’s eminent domain case seeking to condemn waterfront land in Westport for a Baltimore station.
“FRA looks forward to sharing the revised project [environmental impact statement] schedule when it is determined,” an agency spokesman said.
Opponents of the $10 billion project, including Westport community members and a developer planning a town house and apartment community on the waterfront land there, cheered the agency’s notice Thursday.
“We’re absolutely elated,” said Lisa R. Hodges-Hiken, executive director of the Westport Community Economic Development Corp., whose nonprofit has weighed in against the maglev with the federal agency. “We see this as a positive sign. We think this means that they’re going to do a little bit more digging with the environmental impact statement and analysis.”
The agency said it has stopped drafting the required impact statement and will instead review “project elements,” and determine next steps. Project elements can include areas such as project planning and funding but also specific areas such as environmental justice.
It is not unusual for environmental reviews of complex projects to be put on hold while agencies seek more information, do additional analysis and review public comments. The agency, conducting the review with the state Department of Transportation, released a draft impact statement in January and took public comments through May.
Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, which has been working on the maglev project for years, is forging ahead with planning, CEO Wayne Rogers said.
The federal agency’s decision to hit pause is not significant and “happens with projects of this size,” Rogers said in an email.
“The FRA is evaluating issues presented by groups that submitted comments ... to see what is required next,” he said. “It should be noted that the majority of people that testified at the hearings and the majority of people that submitted comments were POSITIVE and in support of the project.”
But the interruption in the process marks the second potential setback for the rail project in recent weeks after the Baltimore judge dismissed Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail’s case seeking the Westport land owned by Sparks-based developer Stonewall Capital. The railroad operator, which says the property is essential to build either of two routes alongside the Baltimore-Washington Parkway without condemning any houses, plans to appeal the ruling.
“The FRA putting a hold on this process again just reiterates how far away their project truly is from coming to fruition,” Ray Jackson, a Stonewall principal, said in an email Thursday. “The ONE Westport development team will continue to work diligently to ensure our project stays on track and delivers what we have proffered to the community and city of Baltimore including the public park and accessible waterfront area.”
Hodges-Hiken said the Westport group’s members share concerns with other communities in Maryland along the route, including preserving wildlife and equity for affected neighborhoods.
The rail project “clearly is not for the residents of Westport and the residents of a lot of the towns along the route,” said Hodges Hiken, citing high ticket prices and disruption to neighborhoods. “We would be better off improving the existing infrastructure, making sure Amtrak operates at high capacity and leveraging the MARC connection.”
Rogers said connecting Baltimore and Washington with a 15-minute trip would transform the city. It would create jobs, reverse population decline, boost real estate values and improve climate and air quality by taking 16 million cars off the road, “and make the largest dent in emissions of any initiative in Maryland.”
Unlike a standard railroad, maglev uses technology that runs on a fixed underground or elevated guideway powered by magnetic forces at speeds up to 311 mph.