In a virtual hearing before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure this week, Amtrak CEO William J. Flynn observed that a proposed magnetic levitation train running between the District of Columbia and Baltimore would “benefit only a small number of affluent travelers,” with ticket prices that would overwhelm the average Amtrak or MARC commuter. He also suggested to members of Congress that scarce transportation dollars would be far better spent on expanding Amtrak’s high-speed rail service to bring it more in line with successful systems in Europe and Asia.
Mr. Flynn is correct on several levels but he is absolutely wrong on a big one. First, he’s right it would be pricey. Northeast’s promoters have been reluctant to assign a dollar-value to a ticket, but federal regulators have suggested it might be around $60 for the 15-minute trip between D.C. and Baltimore. That’s no $8 MARC ticket. But it’s also a bit misleading because Northeast Maglev is seeking private financing for the multibillion-dollar project, and so its backers are hoping that government funding might offset some of its operating costs and lower ticket prices. But whether that happens or not, it’s fair to expect it to be priced above Amtrak’s more comparable, but slower, Acela service (in the neighborhood of $46). But also keep in mind that Northeast expects maglev service to eventually connect to the lucrative New York City market with one-hour service. Today, high-end commuters regularly pay hundreds of dollars to travel by air — or $130 (if booked 21 days in advance) by Acela Express, which takes 2 1/2 hours.
We would further suggest that if only one form of transportation investment had to be made, maglev or high-speed rail, the latter deserves to be the higher priority. That’s just math. It would serve far more people, and it has already proven itself a durable Northeast fixture (made so much better if pinch points like this city’s ancient Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel, where trains crawl at 30 miles per hour, could be addressed). Most of what has been missing to date is the kind of national investment other countries have made in rail. Hopefully, President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plans will help the U.S. match the pace of what’s already been happening in Europe and other industrialized countries.
But where Mr. Flynn is appallingly wrong is the implication that the corridor can’t support a potential competitor to Acela service. Or that maglev is only good for the rich. That’s a shockingly narrow view. Northeast Maglev has already attracted $5 billion in financing from Japan. The project’s construction would generate 74,000 jobs in Maryland over a seven-year development period. And once it’s running, all those wealthy users might just find that Baltimore is a convenient place to live or work. Compared to pricey D.C. real estate, downtown Charm City is a bargain. That kind of investment generates a boatload of job opportunities, with most of them for people who can’t afford to commute by Acela, let alone maglev — and let alone private vehicle in many cases.
Baltimore needs both private and public investment and in all forms of transportation infrastructure. Roads? We need them, too. BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport? A huge regional jobs generator. Maryland Transit Administration? The state agency’s recently-announced efforts to look at new north-south and east-west corridors offer long-term hope despite the death of the Red Line. And rail? The more the better. MARC is a huge asset, and Baltimore is a top-10 Amtrak destination. If private investors are willing to put up cash, and the project passes environmental muster, Northeast Maglev could prove transformative for a city struggling with too many neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.
In short, Mr. Flynn, transportation isn’t just about exactly who boards your train, it’s how the project impacts the communities it serves. Look to passenger rail’s own history and the thousands of Pullman porters of the 19th century. Those were well-paid jobs for African Americans serving wealthy travelers, a rare opportunity that eventually helped shape a Black middle class and likely contributed to the modern civil rights movement. Baltimore is proud of its passenger rail history and happy to have Amtrak service, too. But let’s not make this a turf war given the economic opportunities at stake. Whether trains serving Baltimore ride directly on tracks or levitate by magnetic force above them, we need all the passenger service we can get, rich people included.
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.