The idea of boarding a high-speed floating train in downtown Baltimore and zooming to Washington in 18 minutes flat is tantalizing - for its novelty, its speed and its potential to closely link the two cities.
But a magnetic levitation train would cost $4.4 billion to build and $48 to ride round trip. State lawmakers are now asking: Who would pay that?
"It's out of reach for the average working man and woman in this corridor," said Del. John R. Leopold of Pasadena, a leader of the anti-maglev movement. "The people pushing this project are the corporate types who would benefit."
Those types say there are plenty of others who would use maglev: tourists who would take a day out of their Washington trips to visit Baltimore, travelers getting to the airport, commuters who live in one city and work in another, and, yes, professionals whose jobs require shuttling between the two cities.
"I'd get on it all the time," said Ned Kelly, chairman, president and CEO of Mercantile Bankshares Corp. He's one of a number of business leaders pushing the state to move forward with plans for the train. "From Baltimore's standpoint," he said, "it's pretty obvious."
Maryland is competing with Pittsburgh for a $950 million federal grant to build the first maglev line in the country. A decision is expected from the Federal Railroad Administration this fall. If chosen, the state would be expected to pitch in $475 million of the construction costs, with the first bills due next year.
The state estimates between 30,000 and 33,000 people would ride maglev daily - about the same number as use the city's light rail line today. About a third of the maglev riders would be going to or from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, while the rest would be going the full 40-mile route between Camden Station and Union Station.
The man who came up with those estimates - Alex Metcalf, a former chief economist for British Rail who now has a consulting firm in Frederick - says they're low, if anything.
"My concern at this point is that we may have underestimated demand, particularly for the BWI to downtown Baltimore trip," which would cost $10, Metcalf said. "That trip is going to be so attractive."
The ridership figures assume that about 8 percent of the total trips people make between Baltimore and Washington would be made on maglev. Today, about 89 percent of the trips are by car and 11 percent are by trains.
To determine who would be interested in riding maglev, the state took photos of license plates on cars on Interstate 95, then surveyed those drivers to see where they were going and how much they would pay for a speedy train to get them out of traffic.
At $24 for a one-way trip to Washington, the state says it found a sizable audience. That's more than it costs to ride Amtrak, whose one-way fares range from $14 to $63, but officials say maglev will run much more often - every 15 minutes or so - and even more frequently during events such as Orioles games. Many potential riders are executives who highly value their time and could charge the ticket to their company.
"It takes a quarter of a tank of gas to drive to Washington, then you pay $15 for parking, and you've spent an hour and a half doing it," said James Shea, managing partner of Venable, Baetjer and Howard LLP. "I'm not going to tell you what my hourly rate is, but it's a lot more than $24. Lots of people will do the math and spend the $24 readily."
In devising the ridership figures, Metcalf said he used proven techniques to determine the total number of trips made between the two cities, the likelihood those travelers would use a train, and their proximity to a train station.
People who lived or worked more than a couple of miles from Camden Station were eliminated from the study. Likewise, those without a direct Metro connection to Washington's Union Station were ruled out.
"If you're not very close to the [Metro's] Red Line, no way you are going to drive long distances to get on transit, then take it to maglev to go to the airport," Metcalf said. "So we scrubbed all those areas."
The biggest market comes from executives who live or work downtown. Because of the fares, Metcalf acknowledges, "We're not going to be as attractive to the leisure traveler who is going to visit the museum with his kids. But we're definitely going to be very attractive to the business traveler."
Still, there are worries that as companies move to the suburbs, the number of people who work downtown and can walk to a Camden Station maglev stop will not represent a large portion of the region's work force.
There were about 93,500 jobs in downtown Baltimore last year, a 1.4 percent decline from the previous year, according to the Downtown Partnership.
Maglev is not expected to steal many passengers from MARC - which takes about an hour to get to Washington and costs $5.75 - but Metcalf said the train could find an audience among those who would be willing to trade the high fare for the lower housing prices of Baltimore. The state expects to offer a discounted fare to commuters, $24 roundtrip.
"We've been surprised by the amount of commuters willing to pay high-speed rail fares, like those who live in Philadelphia and work in New York," Metcalf said.
Other experts say the fare is so high that it will turn away many potential riders - including those who would try it just for fun and those who might use it to get to work.
And the state's maglev task force, in a final report issued this month, expressed concerns about whether riders would be willing to pay significantly more than the MARC fare.
"For commuters - especially someone who commutes daily - this would be a very steep fare just to save 20 minutes," said Andrew Farkas, head of the National Transportation Center at Morgan State University. "MARC gains a lot of its ridership from all those intermediate stops, and you're not going to get that from maglev."
Maglev would have three stops: Camden Station, BWI and Union Station.
While the train is supposed to be self-sufficient once it is running, it would still require $475 million from the state for construction. Some lawmakers wonder if they can afford it, given the dire budget situation and the state's other transportation needs.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says his first priority is building the $1.5 billion Intercounty Connector highway. The state also hopes to start construction on the Purple Line extension of the Washington Metro and the Red Line of the Baltimore Region Transit Plan in the next six years.
At the same time, Ehrlich wants to take $300 million out of the Transportation Trust Fund to plug holes in the budget.
"There are so many competing needs that have proven their benefit," Leopold said, adding that the state would be wiser to improve the existing MARC service. "You have to plan projects that have value."