U.S. budget cuts stall area's hopes for maglev train

February 09, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

Efforts to bring a high-speed magnetic levitation train to the Baltimore-Washington corridor have been derailed.

The proposed budget presented by President Clinton Monday includes no money to develop maglev technology in the United States or to develop a prototype.

The 300-mph train service has long faced funding battles in Congress, but the administration's decision could kill it altogether.

"If the program isn't dead, it's barely breathing. We'll have to wait for another time," said E. Wayne Thevenot, a maglev lobbyist in Washington.

Supporters blamed the setback on various factors, including budget restraints. They had hoped to see at least $20 million earmarked for the project next year. The cost of building a prototype, for which the Baltimore-Washington corridor is competing with numerous sites around the country, was expected to reach $1 billion.

Opponents questioned whether so much taxpayer money should be spent on a fledgling technology that could prove unworkable.

Rep. Bob Carr, a Michigan Democrat who is chairman of a key Appropriations subcommittee, has been a roadblock in the House. Maglev advocates said that the administration wasn't willing to use political capital to overcome his opposition.

"Some people believe the Federal Railroad Administration's heart was never really in it," said Douglas J. Bowen, managing editor of Maglev News, a biweekly industry newsletter. "It was too advanced a concept for an agency that is in the business of regulating."

John Fitzpatrick, an FRA spokesman, said the budget cut doesn't mean the administration won't support the prototype in the future. He noted that the agency is scheduled to spend $32.5 million next year on high-speed rail under the Clinton budget and that a portion of that could go to maglev research.

"What we're saying is that given the tight fiscal times we're in, we need to see how maglev fits in with our overall high-speed ground transportation program before we fund a maglev prototype," Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

The timing is unfortunate for efforts to bring the prototype to the Baltimore-Washington corridor. A $900,000 feasibility study commissioned by the Maryland Department of Transportation and financed by federal, state and city governments and private interests predicts that maglev trains would be a big success in Maryland.

Initial findings of the study, scheduled to be released in two months, predict that fares would more than cover a Baltimore-Washington maglev system's operating costs. The report estimates that 21,000 to 39,400 passengers a day would be willing to pay fares of $10 to $20 to be whisked between the two cities in 16 minutes.

"We're very, very disappointed," said Phyllis M. Wilkins, executive director of the Maryland Maglev Project for Maryland Economic Growth Associates Inc. "How can the administration let us go so far out on a limb and then just break it off? It isn't like we haven't been talking to them.

"This is particularly deflating because I think we have some very good information in our report."

Supporters said the budget cut means a loss not just for Maryland, but for the nation, which they said could fall behind Germany and Japan in maglev technology.

Advocates say they plan to lobby Congress to restore funding or to seek alternative sources of money.

"Maglev isn't dead," said Susan Sumner of the High Speed Rail/Maglev Association, a trade group. "There are still some hefty companies interested in maglev."

Maglev trains ride on and are pulled by nearly frictionless, electrically produced magnetic fields.

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