Baltimore-D.C.: a 16-minute commute?

June 07, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

An incomplete map accompanied an article Tuesday in the Maryland section on a feasibility study of a prototype 300-mph magnetic levitation train. These are the four alternative routes for a regional maglev system, a project that currently lacks federal support.

In the year 2005, a traveler might board a sleek vehicle at Baltimore's Camden Yards and arrive in downtown Washington just 16 minutes later after a high-speed commute on a train levitated by magnetic forces.

A $900,000 study released yesterday at the Maryland Business Council headquarters in downtown Baltimore examines the feasibility of a 300-mph magnetic levitation train that would link Baltimore and Washington.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The feasibility is, in a word, good.

Prepared by KCI Technologies, Inc. of Towson and a team of consultants including Martin Marietta Corp., the study took 18 months. It was financed by state, federal and city governments and regional business interests to help lure a "maglev" prototype envisioned by Congress.

The study found no insurmountable hurdles in the quest to build a maglev train in the region. In fact, the biggest obstacle facing the project is something the consultants didn't study -- the federal government's unwillingness to pay for it.

The Clinton administration has not asked Congress for money for maglev research and development next year, leaving the national maglev program in limbo.

"Unless the administration makes a commitment to maglev, it's not going very far very fast," said E. Wayne Thevenot, a maglev lobbyist in Washington.

The price tag for a 40-mile maglev system from Washington to Baltimore is estimated at $1.5 billion to $2.1 billion.

That translates to $40 million to $52 million per mile for a completed maglev system including 16 to 22 trains and a maintenance yard, about the same cost as building an interstate highway from scratch.

The report released yesterday suggests that a maglev train could operate profitably. With 20,900 to 39,400 riders each day -- paying a one-way fare of $10 -- the train would likely generate at least $60 million in fares compared with an estimated $42.6 million in expenses.

Jack Kinstlinger, KCI's chairman, said that fact would set maglev apart from every other mass transit system in the nation. Maryland expects its transit system to recover only half of operating costs from fares.

"This is the good news of the project," Mr. Kinstlinger said. "The system would earn 140 percent to 150 percent of its operating costs. That's a dramatically positive finding for a system like this."

The Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) trains average about 20,000 passenger trips per day. But with $33 million in expenses and $16.4 million in revenues, the system doesn't recover 50 percent of its costs.

Mr. Kinstlinger said maglev fares -- assumed to be double MARC fares in the study -- would be able to pay back the system's construction costs only if the line were extended beyond Baltimore to high-volume destinations such as New York.

A mix of train and aerospace technology, the ultra-fast maglev trains float on a cushion of magnetism at speeds far higher than conventional steel-wheel trains. Consortiums of U.S. companies have been competing to develop the technology. Differing versions of maglev have been demonstrated in Germany and Japan.

The Baltimore-Washington corridor is one of many routes around the country in competition for a prototype system authorized by Congress in 1991. Several contenders have performed similar studies, such as from downtown Pittsburgh to the city's airport, and from New York to Albany.

All have produced encouraging scenarios, maglev supporters note, but the prototype development seems only theoretical unless the federal government appropriates the hundreds of millions of dollars it pledged three years ago.

KCI's report looks at four potential rights-of-way in Maryland: Interstate 95, the Amtrak line, and two alignments involving the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. One of those would be constructed on land adjacent to federal parkland.

The trains would run on dual guideways elevated 40 feet above the ground. Support columns would be spaced 100 feet apart.

Stations would be located at Camden Yards, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Washington's Union Station. The station at BWI would be located on the top floor of the short-term parking garage; the Camden Yards station above the existing MARC platform.

The top speed of 300 mph would be achieved only between the beltways. Trains would slow to 125 mph when approaching a destination. The report estimates that a trip from Washington to BWI would take about 13 minutes.

The study touts many benefits for the region.

Maglev would produce 251 permanent jobs, greatly boost BWI Airport traffic, reduce automobile traffic between the two cities by 9,000 vehicles per day (the equivalent of the traffic volume on one lane of I-95), and establish the region as the center for this cutting-edge technology.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, a maglev proponent, said the prototype is crucial to keeping the country strong industrially. Senator Mikulski said she will press the Pentagon and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help finance maglev. The best hope for the project may come when when a longtime maglev opponent, Rep. Bob Carr, a Michigan Democrat, leaves the chairmanship of a key appropriations subcommittee. He is running for a Senate seat this year.

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