The state Transportation Department will ask the General Assembly to allocate funds to study building a magnetic levitation, or maglev, rail line between Washington and Baltimore, a transportation official said yesterday.
Robert Agee, deputy secretary of the transportation, said that the department "is not one of those standing back and saying it's too new, it's too difficult, it's too expensive."
At the same time, he said at a conference held at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel that "we have to deal with it in the context of the fiscal realities" that so far have left Maryland struggling to bridge a $600 million budget gap in fiscal 1992.
The maglev could travel up to 300 mph -- gliding a few inches above a guideway and propelled by an electromagnetic current. Right now, U.S. trains generally do not top 125 mph. The maglev could make the trip from Washington in as few as 12 minutes, experts and other supporters told an audience at yesteray's conference.
But a report released yesterday by a national research agency concluded that a maglev system could not support itself in the United States without massive public subsidies.
"The potential for such systems to cover their total costs with user charges is not promising," the Washington-based National Research Council report concluded.
"However, consideration of whether external benefits such as reduced congestion for competing [travel] modes, reduced environmental damage, and, in certain circumstances, economic development benefits might justify government subsidy."
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., worked to include in the federal transportation funding bill a $500,000 grant to study building a demonstration maglev line between Baltimore and Washington. Assuming the bill is passed early next month, as expected, another $500,000 would have to be raised in Maryland before the funds would be released.
Ultimately, the prototype line could cost up to $1 billion, and the ,, Congress expects to fund more than 75 percent of the cost. The rest would have to come from whichever state is chosen for the project.
Mr. Agee would not say how much money Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer will ask the legislature to provide for the maglev study. He said that the department's new package will focus on maintaining the state's existing transportation system and then will request money to see that ongoing projects are completed. After that, "we will be including some aspects of maglev in our presentation to the General Assembly," he said.
Much of the conference, sponsored in part by the Maryland Chamber and Economic Development Associates, was spent in a waltz between public and private executives, each urging the other to quantify their commitment to maglev.
"If we don't match it, we don't get it," Ms. Mikulski warned. "And you can say goodbye to it because there are a lot of other states that want it."
Ms. Mikulski stressed the economic benefits such a rail system could bring to Baltimore. "People would come to see it. It would automatically become an attraction, and people would come here to locate their homes and offices. I think a lot of Fortune 500 companies would come here if they knew they could get from here to New York and Washington quicker than they could order a cup of coffee."
Delegate James C. Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, pledged to support state funding of part of the $500,000. But none of the top General Assembly leaders has stepped forward yet in favor of funding the futuristic system.