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The Baltimore maglev: another too good to be true promise in city transportation | COMMENTARY

Many Black families were displaced in the 1970s so that a sunken, 1.2-mile section of U.S. 40, often called the 'Highway to Nowhere,' could be built through the middle of West Baltimore.
Many Black families were displaced in the 1970s so that a sunken, 1.2-mile section of U.S. 40, often called the 'Highway to Nowhere,' could be built through the middle of West Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

City representatives have officially recommended against building a proposed high-speed SCMaglev train between Baltimore and Washington, with eventual plans to stretch to New York City. This recommendation might surprise some Baltimore residents. After all, how could an innovative technological project that promotes sustainability, provides jobs and creates faster connections to surrounding cities not be good for a struggling city like ours?

The city’s reasoning, however, becomes more understandable when we consider the maglev project as part of a longer history of transportation planning in the Baltimore region. For over half a century, Baltimore has grappled with the traumatic consequences of past large-scale transportation infrastructure projects, most notably the elaborate plans for urban interstate highways of the 1950s and 1960s. Arguments made back then in favor of these highways are eerily similar to the current utopian claims from the Northeast Maglev company.

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Back then, highway engineers and local business interest groups argued that urban interstate highways were necessary to revitalize Baltimore’s economy. Highways would eliminate congestion and thereby give suburban residents easy access to Baltimore’s central business district. Meanwhile, they would give urban residents more mobility and attract investment to nearby neighborhoods.

Highway planners presented themselves as “scientific experts” and provided “objective” statistics to substantiate their arguments. William Slayton, commissioner of the Urban Renewal Administration, described urban planning as a “master science” in a speech to the pro-highway Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) in 1963. The GBC itself wrote in a 1962 news release that the need for an East-West Expressway through the heart of Baltimore was “conclusively substantiated” by “detailed studies.”

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Echoes of the older pro-highway rhetoric abound on the maglev’s website. “More access to business, education, and jobs”; “hugely beneficial to local and regional economies”; “major time saving benefits” these are just some of the slogans the company uses to advertise its proposal. “When viewed objectively and scientifically,” the company concludes, “the SCMaglev makes a great deal of sense.”

The problem is that transportation planning is not an exact science. Planners’ predictions have historically turned out imprecise at best and wildly inaccurate at worst. Virtually none of the highway lobby’s “scientific” promises came true. Rather than stop it, highways actually encouraged suburbanization, thereby continuing the cycle of urban population loss and an eroding tax base. I-695 allowed suburbanites to bypass downtown Baltimore altogether, which undermined the central city’s role as the region’s default commerce and transportation hub. Meanwhile, urban highways fractured neighborhoods, displaced families, diminished property values and ultimately resulted in widespread abandonment and decay.

This pattern of neighborhood obliteration followed a disturbingly racial logic. Policymakers were less likely to designate white neighborhoods as so-called “slums,” and since highway construction and “slum” demolition typically went hand in hand, highway routes were often drawn through Black neighborhoods. Moreover, residents in predominantly white neighborhoods (Fells Point, Federal Hill, Franklintown) were much more likely to have the financial means and political leverage to successfully lobby and litigate against the highways planned in their neighborhoods.

The destructive consequences of urban highways, once unknown, are now widely acknowledged. In cities nationwide, equity-minded policymakers are debating the merits of highway demolition, including here in Baltimore, where debates center on the infamous Highway to Nowhere. Federal lawmakers have introduced the Reconnecting Communities Act, which would help reconnect and revitalize areas harmed by highway construction. Over half a century later, we are only beginning to address the havoc wrought by the overly optimistic transportation technology enthusiasts of the mid-20th century.

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This history suggests that the city’s safest bet is to prioritize the creation of an affordable public transit system built in accordance with the fabric of neighborhoods and the daily needs of residents. The full range of consequences of flashy and technologically radical projects such as superhighways and high-speed rail connections are impossible to predict, but history indicates that they will likely cause significant collateral damage.

It is already clear, for example, that the maglev train will primarily serve those who are able to pay between five and 10 times as much to save 45 minutes on a one-way trip to Washington (the maglev is projected to cost riders $1 to $2 per mile; the MARC, according to my own calculation, costs about 20 cents per mile). The Baltimore area needs, first and foremost, improved bus service, more frequent and affordable trains on existing rail, and arguably also new light rail connections. Such solutions are perhaps not very exciting, but much more likely to serve economic and racial justice, while also reducing gasoline emissions and car dependence.

Douwe Schipper (dschipp1@jh.edu) is a doctoral student in the History of Science and Technology department of Johns Hopkins University.

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