If Baltimore is to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and flourish in a way that it was not before the virus even arrived, what it needs most is for its residents to have better access to well-paying jobs. Expecting those jobs to suddenly plop down in Baltimore once herd immunity is achieved is beyond improbable. But what if the city could be served by a high-speed train that could get passengers from a station in Cherry Hill to the heart of Washington, D.C. and its wealth of employment opportunities in just 15 minutes? That may strike some as unlikely, too, but with Joe Biden in the White House, a proposed privately-operated maglev train serving the Northeast Corridor — beginning with Baltimore-Washington and capable of speeds of 311 miles per hour or more — suddenly doesn’t seem qu,ite so far-fetched. And the latest study from Johns Hopkins University’s 21st Century Cities Initiative lays out the argument for how Baltimore could receive an extraordinary economic boost from such a project.
The Hopkins report, co-authored by a former head of the Maryland Transit Administration, doesn’t specifically mention maglev, but itpoints out that existing commuter train service, MARC, often takes an hour or more to ferry riders from downtown Baltimore to downtown D.C., with its “express” service cutting the time to 48 minutes (on its best day). Frequently, it’s faster to drive. Cutting that commuting time by two-thirds or more, as the the Maryland-headquartered Northeast Maglev proposes to do, is potentially life-changing. not only opening up jobs in D.C. to Baltimoreans, but likely motivating D.C. area residents to relocate to Baltimore and its more affordable housing (the average home sale is $628,000 in D.C.; $148,000 in Charm City). Even D.C.-based companies might be inclined to relocate to a city with far lower costs than the nation’s capital. And more relaxed work-from-home standards that seem likely to last well past the end of the pandemic would help Baltimore attract newcomers, too. The train would have an intermediate stop at the main terminal of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, which would surely be an added boost to that facility.
That’s not to suggest there aren’t still questions. The report’sauthors note that COVID-19 has been disastrous for transit ridership of all kinds over the past year. And neighborhood redevelopment in Baltimore is unpredictable, too: Will people attracted by commuter train service make the investment, and if they do, will they displace longtime, lower-income residents? Meanwhile, people living in communities bordering the maglev corridor have long expressed doubts about having trains whizzing past at 300 miles per hour (albeit mostly through an underground guideway). And, of course, the proposed Northeast Maglev line remains in the planning stages. Just last month, the Federal Railroad Administration released a preliminary review laying out the project’s economic and environmental impacts. It’s now under a public comment period that runs to April 22. Next year, however, the agency could give final approval. One major boost for the project is $5 billion in financing from Japan, where maglev technology has been under development for years, but the remaining funding for the project’s $10 billion or more construction cost is far from assured.
This much is clear: Magnetic levitating trains in the United States are not the far-off dream they seemed a decade ago. They offer an energy-efficient means to reduce Interstate 95 congestion without worsening greenhouse gas emissions or destroying the environment. Baltimore and Washington pose a rarity, the Hopkins study points out, in that seldom is such a prosperous city located so close to a city of similar size but on the other end of the economic spectrum. What better way to demonstrate the power of public transit than to bridge this yawning divide in economic opportunity with a train using 21st century technology that’s already proven its mettle in Japan, South Korea and China? And what better opportunity to show the relevance of ultra-high-speed train travel to the West than just outside the capital of the United States?
Here’s what the project could really use right now: Some vocal support from elected officials. People like Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger have heartily endorsed it. So have business and labor groups. But some others, including Gov. Larry Hogan, hardly speak out about it at all, particularly compared to a certain controversial highway widening effort in the D.C. suburbs. Perhaps it’s because the project isn’t government controlled or there’s fear of offending the NIMBY crowd (although much of the preferred maglev alignment crosses federal land primarily). Still, here’s a number that should delight any governor: The project’s seven-year construction is expected to produce 74,000 jobs in Maryland. And how much is the state expected to contribute toward that multibillion-dollar building cost? At the moment, not a dime.
That alone ought to make maglev irresistible. And so should this extraordinary opportunity to revive Baltimore’s economy. Yes, there are still obstacles. But the reward is too great to let this particular opportunity pass by without getting on board.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.