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Would bullet train be 'magic bullet' for Baltimore's population, tax base?

Would bullet train be 'magic bullet' for Baltimore's population, tax base?
A Maglev (magnetic levitation) train rides on the experimental track in Tsuru, Japan. ((TORU YAMANAKA / AFP/Getty Images))

David Cordish, real estate mogul and successful developer of casinos, says this about a proposed high-speed train that could move passengers from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. in 15 minutes: "Game changer for city!" And the city he's talking about is Baltimore.

Cordish believes magnetic levitation (maglev) would make Baltimore a different city in a matter of years, sparing us decades of grinding recovery.
“In fact,” he crowed in a recent email, “I can think of no other answer for city woes. We would become a bedroom community for Washington and corporate world headquarters for companies that need to be near Washington. It's simple economics. The cost of housing and office is three times in the District what it is in Baltimore. Our population would soar to a million and the jobs would follow. That all this would occur is really not debatable.”
Really not debatable?

I think having Baltimore assume the identity of a “bedroom for Washington” through wholesale gentrification is infinitely debatable on many levels. This idea has been around for about 20 years, with as many stops and starts as a MARC train, and it seems to be catching on again, even as Baltimore’s image slowly heals from April’s riot. Just this week, the city was listed in a Huffington Post piece as one of 5 Secretly Cool Cities Where You Can Still Get in on the Ground Floor,” with travel writer David Landsel advising readers to “think of Baltimore as the Oakland of a suddenly (and outrageously) expensive D.C.”

So, for the purpose of examining maglev’s potential role in marketing Baltimore as a place to live (or at least sleep), I’ll play along.

Like Baltimore-as-Washington’s-bedroom, Maglev is not a new idea. And it’s very expensive --  the preliminary estimate for the Washington-Baltimore stretch has been put at $12 billion -- and it has plenty of skeptics.

Baltimore architect and blogger Klaus Philipsen called the high-speed rail system a “boondoggle” in a recent post, and readers will recognize that term as the same used by Gov. Larry Hogan to describe the far more practical (and needed) Red Line light rail system that he scrapped in June. Philipsen described maglev as “an aphrodisiac of sorts for politicians [who] get starry-eyed when they ride one of the test trains.”
That happened to Hogan during his trip to Japan in June. One ride on the maglev and the Republican governor who deemed the Red Line too expensive said he would seek a $28 million grant to study the possibility of a Baltimore-Washington maglev line.
Northeast Maglev, the group pushing the project (and, eventually, a line to New York City) opened an office in Baltimore two weeks ago. Responding to my recent column on vacant houses, a reader named Cindy Lamberts connected the two issues -- abundant abandoned housing and maglev.
“My husband and I are retired economists who moved here to buy ‘a big old house’ after decades of living in cramped DC apartments,” she wrote. “We read with interest your Sunday column on demolition as a last resort. Also read the recent news of the Japanese bullet train locating an office here. (And with potential for major Japanese subsidy!) There is a huge, pent-up demand for sizable housing in the DC area. A bullet train would expand that geographic demand into Baltimore. The influx of well-paid jobs -- linked to the federal government/politics/lobbying -- into Baltimore would generate its own internal economic feedback loop. A laser-like focus on making this happen seems to us to be a silver bullet. What is wrong with this thinking?”
Nothing, except critical mass. And affordable ticket prices for daily commuters.
I admit that, in theory, Cordish’s argument is seductive: The bullet train makes Charm City a bedroom of the nation’s capital. We get new citizens and companies; property values soar, tax revenue goes off the charts and we’ll have a million people in Baltimore by mid-century. Game changer!
But my first question to Wayne Rogers, chief executive of Northeast Maglev, was about numbers.
Could maglev carry enough passengers between Baltimore and Washington during daily rush hours to make such a thing possible? And why not just improve Amtrak or MARC, the commuter rail line?
“[Maglev] will carry about 770 to 850 passengers to Baltimore from DC in 15 minutes,” Rogers responded. “This is more than twice the size of an [Amtrak] Acela train and more than twice as fast. If we assume that we improved MARC service to the latest Bombardier cars to bring them to the same size as the Maglev -- let’s say 800 passengers per train -- you still have the issue of runtime. The MARC train takes 50 to 65 minutes, DC to Baltimore. This means you can deliver 800 people in an hour roughly. The maglev train can deliver 3200 people in an hour or four times the amount.”
(Rogers said his group’s plan is to have up to five trains per hour on a dedicated maglev track, meaning no conflicts with other passenger or freight lines. That’s how he gets to the 3,200 estimate.)
“In Japan,” he said, “they deliver 150 million people a year in a corridor only 10 miles greater than DC-to-New York, and the average delay in a year is 30 seconds, without a single fatality ever. They control being on time by having passenger-only rail and having control of the entire system.
A full maglev line, New York to Washington, would put a train in Baltimore every four minutes, Rogers said. “Nothing can move that many people, as quickly and on time.”

Rogers will be my guest during an upcoming Roughly Speaking podcast. We'll let you know when it posts.

What do you think? Game changer, or a lot of hype?
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