After decades of hopeful talk, plans for the proposed Baltimore-to-Washington high-speed train may finally be pulling out of the station.
An appropriations bill signed into law this week by President Bush contains $12 million for research on the futuristic passenger trains, $500,000 of it earmarked for a feasibility study of the Baltimore-Washington route inserted by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
On Monday, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke appointed a panel to promote the plan. And a state official says Gov. William Donald Schaefer will include some initial funding for the project in his budget request in January.
And, after years of talk and no action, Congress is considering no fewer than 15 separate bills concerning the so-called "magnetic levitation" trains, or rail service that rides on and is pulled by nearly frictionless, electrically produced magnetic fields.
Baltimore's civic leaders have long dreamed of the project, a $1 billion, 300 mph train that would cut the trip to Washington from 50 minutes to 10. Such a system could revitalize downtown, bring jobs and prestige to the state, and ease congestion and pollution, according to its backers.
If there was any doubt about the seriousness of the effort, it was dispelled yesterday when a few dozen of the region's heaviest hitters gathered at a Maryland Chamber of Commerce forum downtown. Instead of the usual gee whiz interest, there was lively debate and active finger-pointing about who should pay for the project.
Speakers representing the city and the state pointed to the development of the railroad industry in Baltimore more than a hundred years ago and suggested that a similar, privately funded effort be launched for "maglev." Business leaders called for greater government leadership.
"A few years ago we would have been lucky to get two people to something like this," said William J. Birkhofer, vice president of Sverdrup Corp., a transportation design firm.
Baltimore hopes to top several other regions vying to be the site of a demonstration project, testing the technology. Before the $500,000 in federal funding can be spent, another $500,000 has to be raised from local and state governments and or private business.
Schaefer will include the project in his budget request, but private business must contribute as well, said Robert Agee, assistant to Maryland's transportation secretary.
"If we're to be first, we've got a lot of work to do," said William J. Boardman, president of Maglev USA, a Washington-based group promoting the rapid transit.
The technology for the trains was developed in the United States but Japan and Germany have been more aggressive about putting it into practice. The U.S. could jump back into the race, learn from the mistakes of those countries, and develop a formidable export industry, said Gilbert E. Carmichael, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.
Because the trains are powered by electricity, the pollution made in the process can be much better controlled at the power plant than onboard a locomotive, plane or car, said Richard Gran, director of advanced concepts for Grumman Corp., which has won a contract to help design a system.
And the trains use less energy and cost less per passenger mile to operate than those alternatives, Gran said.
Eventually, a network of the high-speed trains could be built in regions where other transportation modes are overloaded, such as the Northeast where a Boston-to-Washington system would cost $11 billion. The trains would relieve pressure on airports and highways, saving money in those areas, he said.
Eighteen regions are actively seeking to be the site of a demonstration project, which will cost an estimated $750 million and be operational by 1998. The leaders are Orlando, Fla.; Dallas-Houston, and New York, with Baltimore-Washington not far behind, said Birkhofer.
Del. James C. Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, said "Maglev holds the potential to reinvigorate Baltimore and bring to the Baltimore suburbs into the growth of Washington."
Meanwhile, a report financed by the U.S. Transportation Department and released yesterday says high-speed rail ought to be examined but cautioned that its price would be high.
The report concludes that high-speed trains on rails are "more realistic" than maglev and could be pursued most easily because maglev vehicles require considerable additional development to ensure their safety and reliability.
Lawrence Dahms, who directed the study under the auspices of the National Research Council, said at a news conference in Washington that "the good news is that high-speed trains similar to those in Japan and Europe are technologically feasible right now."
"The bad news," he said, "is that these systems are extremely costly and unlikely to attract enough riders to pay for all of their costs without public subsidies."
Wire services contributed to this report.