Schaefer the brakeman

December 15, 1992

Baltimore aspires to become the testing ground for a futuristic magnetic levitation train that whooshes along at 300 mph on a magnetic field. Already in use in Germany and Japan, the system is essentially a levitated train that rides on air. Several cities are vying for the federal government's prototype. Aside from the jobs such a massive public works project could bring, the project is seen as a boon for economic development, tourism and mass transit. The idea would seem to have the name "William Donald Schaefer" written all over it.

Yet the governor has been uncharacteristically lukewarm to the concept. His administration has never really been out front on the opportunity. The city of Baltimore and private groups such as the Abell Foundation and the Maryland Economic Growth Association have acted as cheerleaders.

The governor's ambivalence about maglev came to a head last month when the Board of Public Works, which he chairs, postponed approval of the state's $200,000 contribution to a study of the best route between Baltimore and Washington. The city and private interests have pledged the balance for the $500,000 study. Some other states competing for the project already have studies under way.

In a Schaeferian fit of pique, the governor said he didn't want to rush along the maglev money until he sees improvement in the punctuality of the Maryland Rail Commuter line. Except for the fact that they're both trains, maglev has nothing to go with MARC. The governor may simply have wanted to prod the business community to back him in pressing MARC to improve service.

While Schaefer the politician may have thought that a neat trick, Schaefer the promoter should have been appalled. Last summer, the governor exhorted Sen. Barbara Mikulski to take pains not to impede the Washington Redskins' wishes to relocate to Virginia so as not to jeopardize Baltimore's chances of winning a football franchise. Weeks later, he scolded a councilwoman for foot-dragging that might have dissuaded Coca-Cola from building a big plant in Howard County. Yet on maglev, the governor is doing precisely what he preaches against: Sending mixed signals on a project that could benefit Maryland.

Yes, much remains unknown about the magnetic levitation technology. And the state is struggling to meet basic human needs now, much less be able to fund 21st century modes of transportation. Yet Mr. Schaefer's stall is over peanuts -- the equivalent of two traffic signals -- and not worth jeopardizing a project in an embryonic stage that has strong business support. It is also the kind of long-range, hi-tech investment that shouldn't be derailed by current fiscal difficulties.

The governor should be driving the train, not threatening to pull the emergency brake.

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