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Md. competes for futuristic 'maglev' train Consultant to look at possible routes


A story in Sunday's editions of The Sun about efforts to bring a government-financed magnetic levitation train system to the Washington-Baltimore corridor incorrectly identified Maryland Economic Growth Associates. MEGA is a division of the Maryland Business Council, a private, non-profit organization that receives no public funding.

The Sun regrets the error.

Hoping to lure a federal prototype that could be worth nearly a billion dollars, state officials plan to hire a consultant to study routes for a magnetic levitation train that would link Baltimore and Washington.

A Towson firm is expected to get the $900,000 contract, which will examine the feasibility of four potential routes between the two cities. The findings of the one-year study are considered vital to help the region win the prototype for the so-called "maglev" train, which is scheduled to be built before the end of the century.

The Baltimore-D.C. route is competing against a host of other possible maglev corridors across the country. They include New York to Buffalo; Anaheim, Calif., to Las Vegas; Cleveland to Columbus, Ohio; Orlando to Miami to Tampa, Fla.; Pittsburgh International Airport to downtown Pittsburgh; Dallas to Houston to San Antonio, Texas, and Chicago to Milwaukee.

"This is the first step," said Peter J. Schmidt, an assistant general manager with Maryland's Mass Transit Administration, which is coordinating the effort. "We have to decide if this makes sense for us. Is this the way for Maryland to go?"

KCI Technologies, Inc., an engineering consulting firm, has been selected to conduct the study, pending approval next month from the state board of public works. The study will focus on costs and the project's feasibility, looking at existing rights-of-way that could accommodate the futuristic train.

Those possible routes include Interstate 95, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and the existing Amtrak and CSX Transportation rail lines.

Maryland was one of a half-dozen jurisdictions awarded a $500,000 grant to study a potential maglev corridor more than a year ago by the Congress. But the study has been held up for months, in part, because of financing.

To qualify for the federal funds, Maryland needed to come up with $500,000 of its own, and state officials decided to seek support from private businesses. Their goal was to raise $200,000 from the Baltimore business community, but that effort has so far fallen $35,000 short.

But the money should be raised in a matter of days, said Phyllis M. Wilkins, executive director of the Maryland Maglev Project for Maryland Economic Growth Associates Inc.

Private business have so far kicked in $65,000 through MEGA, a quasi-public economic development group.

The biggest private contributor is the Abell Foundation, which gave $100,000. The state transportation department has committed $200,000 to the project, and the city has agreed to pay $100,000.

"The private sector so far has been enthusiastic," Ms. Wilkins said. "It's just that there are some people who are still not convinced and want to wait to see if it [maglev] is viable."

Meanwhile, a study of the potential economic benefits of maglev in Maryland has been undertaken by the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's non-profit economic development firm.

The $40,000 study is being performed by Louis Berger International Inc., a New Jersey-based economic consultant, and is expected to be completed in six months.

At stake in the competition are thousands of potential jobs and the promise of $725 million from the federal government to construct the prototype, which most estimate will end up costing $1 billion or more.

Advocates for the Baltimore-D.C. route argue that the delay has probably not been harmful to Maryland's chances of attracting the project. Despite support in the U.S. Senate, the Congress failed to fund the maglev prototype project in the budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

The $151 billion highway and transit program signed into law by President Bush last year outlined a timetable for maglev, specifying that a prototype be operational by 1999. But it also anticipated $45 million to start the ball rolling this fiscal year, and it is generally assumed that the lack of funding has pushed the schedule back at least a year.

The House killed the appropriation, but maglev supporters say the biggest obstacle to the project has been the White House. The Bush Administration has argued that maglev technology has not yet been proven as practicable, and a prototype could be an expensive flop.

A U.S. Department of Transportation study that will, among other things, examine the prospects for a maglev prototype in 26 different corridors is expected to be completed by next March.

In the meantime, Congress has appropriated $7 million to continue maglev research and maintain an office in the Federal Railroad Administration to coordinate the efforts of several federal agencies.

"The maglev community at the moment is waiting to see what the election produces," said E. Wayne Thevenot, a Washington lobbyist who is promoting both maglev technology and the Baltimore-Washington route. "The Bush administration has not been helpful to the high-speed rail program."

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