The proposal to build a $10 billion high-speed maglev train route between Baltimore and Washington has picked up the support of the North American Building Trades Unions and the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, officials of both groups announced Wednesday.
The Japanese superconducting magnetic levitation technology promises to shorten the trip between Baltimore and Washington to 15 minutes, and officials hope to eventually expand it to New York, creating an hourlong trip between the nation's capital and its largest city.
If it is built, the project will use union labor for construction and the unions' two dozen training centers in the Baltimore-Washington area to prepare new workers for apprenticeships, according to a memorandum of understanding between the unions and Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail, the firm seeking to build the train.
In return, North American Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey pledged "our full, unmitigated support in the regulatory, legislative, political [process] and, at the end of the day, the finest, most productive workforce in the world to make this project a reality."
"Union labor will be used on this project, and lots of people who currently aren't in the construction industry will get their opportunity to be in the construction industry via this project," McGarvey said.
Jeff Hirschberg, vice president of Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail, said the unions will provide not only construction labor for Maglev but servicing once it is built.
"The best-trained people in the world are going to help us build this, and they're going to help us maintain it," Hirschberg said.
Black Caucus Chair Cheryl D. Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat in the House of Delegates, emphasized the potential economic benefits for the state in her endorsement of the project. She stood with other members of the caucus during the announcement Wednesday morning at the B&O Railroad Museum.
"Most important is the fact that there will be 1,500 people who will be permanently employed by these companies when this train service is complete," Glenn said to applause.
Mayor Catherine Pugh, another proponent of the project, said it will employ Baltimoreans and create a bridge between the city and Washington.
"It will transform neighborhoods and communities," Pugh said. "It will also be a stimulator for growing small business."
The announcement came less than two weeks after Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who supports the Maglev proposal, announced that Maryland has given transportation and tech mogul Elon Musk permission to dig a 10.3-mile tunnel for his Hyperloop high-speed underground transit system beneath the state-owned portion of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
The maglev technology is fascinating, but its practicality — and its price tag — raise two big questions, said Z. Andrew Farkas, director of the National Transportation Center at Morgan State University.
"This corridor would have to be substantially rebuilt," Farkas said. "It's capital-intensive and it's energy-intensive."
The Northeast Corridor needs better mobility options, so the demand is there for the project, said Celeste Chavis, an assistant professor of transportation and urban infrastructure studies at Morgan State, who attended the news conference with Farkas.
She too has doubts about Maglev's cost.
"It seems like it has support," Chavis said. "I'm not sure if it has the funding."
Hogan has said the project would have to be built without state money, relying instead on federal and private dollars for the estimated cost of $10 billion to $12 billion. The federal government has awarded Maglev $27.8 million for an environmental review, which is expected to be completed by summer 2019.
Private backers have raised $65 million for the project, and the Japanese — eager to win a potentially lucrative contract for 200 miles of train infrastructure — have offered incentives for the first leg between Baltimore and Washington. The state-owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation has pledged $5 billion loan and the Central Japan Railway Co. has said it will waive all technology licensing fees.
Dennis Brady, a former Bowie city councilman who heads an opposition group called Citizens Against This SCMaglev (or "CATS"), said he wasn't surprised by the unions and the Baltimore politicians supporting the project. Dozens of group members protested the project at several public open houses last month, and Brady attended Wednesday's news conference.
"We still believe that it is not an economically viable proposal," Brady said.
I think they're trying to reestablish some momentum coming out of what was a very negative round of open houses from a public-input standpoint."
McGarvey, the building trades unions president, said Wednesday's agreement signaled the Maglev project's promise for those who live in the area.
"This group that's undertaking this massive project is committed to real, middle-class, family-sustaining jobs, with health and retirement security," he said. "They're also committed to making sure that maximum participation happens from in and amongst the communities where this rail line is going to go through."