Pena comes to town, plugs fast-train plan About 70 leaders hear the secretary

June 19, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

The nation's top transportation official traveled yesterday to the cradle of railroading to make a plug for fast trains.

Appearing in Baltimore before a group of business leaders, U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena touted a five-year, $1.3 billion Clinton administration plan that would pay to develop high-speed train technology in the United States.

The proposal, pending before Congress, would also provide grants to states and local governments that want to upgrade existing rail corridors outside the Northeast, he said.

But the former Denver mayor stopped short of endorsing government-financed construction of a magnetic levitation train until its feasibility is proven.

So-called maglev trains, which might one day shuttle travelers between Baltimore and Washington, travel on a cushion of magnetism at speeds of up to 300 mph.

Building confidence

Instead, Mr. Pena said, the administration will spend $228 million over the next half-decade to design a maglev system, and then decide if and where to build a prototype that could cost up to $1 billion.

"Our job is to build confidence in the private sector and in Congress," Mr. Pena said. "We don't have high-speed rail yet. This is a bold and a first step."

The Baltimore-Washington corridor is considered a prime contender among the half-dozen or more jurisdictions angling for the maglev prototype. The Maryland Department of Transportation is currently studying four possible routes for a Baltimore-to-D.C. maglev train that could be in operation by 2001.

So far, the median strip of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway appears the most advantageous.

Jack Kinstlinger, chairman of KCI Technologies Inc., a Towson company that is conducting the $900,000 study, said early findings also show potential ridership in the tens of millions of passengers a year. The study is expected to be completed in September.

While the principle of maglev technology has been around for 15 years, experts remain divided over its commercial viability, safety and environmental effects.

But if successful, maglev trains could replace short-hop airline shuttles and provide an ideal new market for aerospace companies and defense contractors such as Westinghouse, Martin Marietta, Grumman and Bechtel.

'Some are skeptical'

"There are some in Congress who are skeptical of any technological opportunity," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who accompanied Mr. Pena.

"They don't know if maglev is a techno-opportunity or a techno-turkey," she said.

Dr. Richard J. Gran of Grumman Corp. said preconceived notions that maglev is outlandish "Buck Rogers" technology and too costly are wrong. "All we're asking for is the opportunity to prove the technology and the economics," he said.

The nation's first high-speed passenger rail system is more likely to involve conventional steel-wheel trains.

Amtrak is in the midst of an $800 million upgrade of the Northeast corridor that by 1997 could bring trains running 150 mph or faster between Washington and Boston.

About 70 people attended yesterday's two-hour meeting at the Legg Mason Tower that was sponsored by Maryland Economic Growth Associates.

Maglev proponents claim that attracting the prototype to Maryland could create 200,000 jobs, and the nonprofit business group has been at the forefront of the effort.

"The business community views this as not just a transportation project but as a manufacturing opportunity for this state and this region," said Donald P. Hutchinson of the Maryland Business Council.

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