In 1729, Baltimore held an advantage over every other American city — it boasted the westernmost deep-water port on the Eastern Seaboard. The second westernmost deep-water port was Hudson Harbor in New York City. For a hundred years, the two coastal cities competed for commerce from Europe. By 1825, New York had built for itself the second greatest infrastructure project in U.S. history: the Erie Canal, clearing a sea passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.
On July 4, 1828, Baltimore City unveiled to the world its answer, laying the cornerstone of the greatest infrastructure project in U.S. history: the American railroad. Charles Carroll, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, performed the groundbreaking but would die 20 years before the B&O railroad reached Ohio.
Leaders back then made decisions they knew would outlive them, investments that only years later would be vindicated. The next generation’s rail system — superconducting magnetic levitation trains that travel over 300 miles per hour — requires that kind of leadership.
Baltimore currently lacks it.
Baltimore should not have succumbed to shortsighted lobbying or the false choice between Amtrak and maglev. At stake is a complementary transit proposal requiring no local tax dollars that promises to create thousands of jobs, slash regional commute times, reduce congestion and carbon emissions, and revitalize dwindling neighborhoods desperate for people and capital.
For a city losing 1% of its population each year, one surefire way to spark a surge in newcomers is to introduce a sleek, 15-minute bullet train between an increasingly unaffordable political capital and a port city with high vacancy rates. The rail line would continue further north in the future, ultimately taking commuters to the world’s financial center, New York City, in 45 minutes. The herculean construction would generate 74,000 jobs and, once complete, remove 16 million car trips from the road each year.
Even so, Baltimore’s concerns about equity, affordability and the environment are legitimate. The job of city leaders, however, is not simply to spot problems but to solve them as well.
Take gentrification. At greatest risk are proposed terminals like Cherry Hill, whose residents, after enduring the neighborhood’s hardships for years, could be pushed out just as the renaissance arrives. But the solution is to stop displacement, not to resist development. Learning from mistakes elsewhere, Baltimore should pioneer a novel paradigm of growth without gentrification, attracting diverse new homeowners even as it persuades those who have fled to return and those who are here to remain.
In Cherry Hill, the city could cap annual property tax increases at inflation for existing homeowners, guarantee residential options in new developments for current public housing tenants, offer South Baltimore natives who moved to the suburbs incentives to return, and subject developers to the same affordable housing and mixed-use requirements that federal grant programs like Hope VI and Choice Neighborhoods impose.
Ecological concerns can likewise be addressed. According to the Federal Railroad Administration’s impact assessment, every proposed route threatens Maryland’s cherished Patuxent Wildlife Refuge. That’s a deal-breaker. But the agency’s analysis also says longer (albeit more expensive) stretches of deep underground tunneling could avoid these risks altogether.
That leaves one last objection: Only the rich can afford to pay an expected $60 for a one-way ticket on maglev. But that’s the average price, and pre-purchased tickets could start at $27, already less than the current $46 Acela fare. High initial prices were also an objection to iPhones and airplanes. Fares on maglev and Amtrak will come down with time and competition. Plus, there are pricing regulations that could ensure affordability. An annual commuter pass could be capped, for example, at 5% of the rider’s salary, making daily maglev travel cheaper for a line cook than a CEO. Baltimore could also issue income-dependent transit subsidies to people who elect to live in the city.
With some ingenuity and elbow grease, high-speed rail can be transformative, sustainable and fair. History tells us there is no better place than Baltimore for the next chapter of rail travel to begin. We just need the courage and leadership to get on board.
Thiru Vignarajah (firstname.lastname@example.org) is former deputy attorney general of Maryland and was a candidate for mayor of Baltimore.