A Buck Rogers high-speed railroad that could carry commuters from Washington to Baltimore in less than 15 minutes may be on the way. It will be so clean and quiet that at speeds of more than 300 mph, a momentary lapse in attention means you might miss the train. So don't blink.
This is the dream of a consortium of public and private organizations, more than half from Maryland, that is lobbying Congress and Maryland's General Assembly to finance construction of a prototype magnetic levitation, or maglev, line from Baltimore to Washington.
Maglev, invented in the United States in the 1960s, would use electromagnetic force to suspend a train a few inches above a guideway and then propel it quietly. An actual commercial railroad run by maglev is merely a pipe dream at this point, although prototype lines have been built in Germany and Japan.
But U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., is expected to introduce a bill within a few weeks calling for a federal commitment to a $1 billion project to design and build a prototype maglev route of 30 or 40 miles.
Supporters of the plan predict that if Congress chooses Maryland for the first route, the project will transform the Baltimore area's economy, not only because of the tourism value and not just because a $1 billion construction project would go up along Interstate 95.
"I think the major economic development impact is it's the most important thing we can do to drive the Baltimore and Washington economies together," said Delegate James C. Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, who has sponsored a joint resolution in the General Assembly to urge Congress to finance the project and to choose Baltimore and Washington as its end points.
"This would make the concept of the SMSA [Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area] a reality," Mr. Rosapepe said, "because it would mean that it would be very, very feasible for lots of people to live in Washington, work in Baltimore -- and vice versa -- or work in both cities at the same time."
The ride probably would take 15 minutes or less, including a stop at Baltimore-Washington International Airport that could help draw some travelers from National and Dulles, the other Washington-area airports.
Scientists think the current cost of building a maglev line -- $20 million to $24 million a mile -- could be lowered to $10 million or less using technology now being studied.
Ideally, the price of a ticket would be competitive with those of tickets for other rail lines between the two cities, said William Boardman, president of the consortium, called MAGLEV USA.
The consortium's 12 members include Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which wants to provide the electricity to run the train; Alex. Brown & Sons Inc., which helped finance the first commercial railroad in the United States and wants to do the same for maglev; Westinghouse Electric Corp.; Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.; Grumman Corp.; the Abell Foundation; Center City-Inner Harbor Management Inc.; the University of Maryland; and CSX Transportation Inc.
MAGLEV USA has been "trying to create interest within the federal government," Mr. Boardman said. "At the same time, we're trying to create interest at the state and local level."
State officials will have to be more than a little interested to sign on to the project, which probably will cost Maryland 10 percent or more of the $1 billion price tag.
There's no doubt that Baltimore needs faster, more frequent rail service between the two cities, said Robert Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. And maglev "has a magic to it because of the new technology," he said. "The question is, is it affordable?"
Delegate Thomas H. Hattery, D-Frederick, who co-sponsored Mr. Rosapepe's resolution, pointed out that a $100 million project spread over four or five years is a relatively small bite out of the state Department of Transportation's $1.5 billion annual budget. And the first installment of the money won't be needed until fiscal 1993, at the earliest.
Even for some who don't consider themselves maglev fanatics, the potential benefits to the region are clear. Federal agencies, national trade associations, law firms and non-profit organizations that were already beginning to take Baltimore seriously as a location would be more likely to move to the city if they were less than 30 minutes from Capitol Hill, Mr. Keller said.
Class A office space in Baltimore rents for $10 to $12 a square foot less than it does in Washington, he pointed out. The decision to move north would make sense "as the federal government searches for cost- effective ways of managing their agencies," Mr. Keller said.
Mr. Rosapepe thinks that Maryland, home of the first commercial railroad in the 1830s, cannot afford to miss out on one of the most important technologies of the 21st century.
"The reason the port of Baltimore expanded so much in the 19th century," he said, "is because we were the first to have a railroad" -- the Baltimore & Ohio, which connected the city to the Midwestern markets beyond the Allegheny Mountains. "That was for a raw materials-based economy, and this is for a service-based economy."
David Brown, a MAGLEV USA member from BG&E;, went even further. "In our opinion, this is going to be as important as the airplane for transportation in the next 40 years," he said.
But first, assuming Congress agrees to finance the project, the consortium must convince the lawmakers that Maryland is the place for maglev. There are six other locations looking into building a line, and some of them are farther along than Maryland in the planning stages.
The possible routes are Los Angeles to Las Vegas; Seattle to Tacoma, Wash.; the Orlando, Fla., airport to International Drive just outside Disneyworld; Pittsburgh's airport to the downtown area; and locations in upstate New York and Ohio, Mr. Boardman said.
For Mr. Rosapepe, Baltimore-Washington is the ideal route. Few other locations have the density of intercity traffic that maglev could relieve; the distance is just about right for a $1 billion allocation; there is a major airport along the route to use maglev as a feeder; and the route is an obvious launching pad for running an extended maglev system along the Northeast Corridor.
Besides, the route is close to Washington, "so it'll get more attention from the decision-makers," Mr. Rosapepe said.
His resolution will be heard by the Ways and Means Committee next week, only two weeks after the federal government issued a request for proposals for about a half-dozen small ($1.5 million each) initial design contracts. A response is due at the end of April, Mr. Boardman said, noting that Maryland could show its interest by spending $1 million or so to aid those studies.
"Within the next couple of months," he said, "there is an opportunity for the state to say, 'Yes, we want to play a role,' or 'No, we don't.' "