In the race for federal money to build the nation's first high-speed magnetic levitation train, Maryland will take a big step forward next week as one of a handful of states awarded funds for formal studies.
"Maglev" trains, which have been tested in Germany and Japan, rely on magnetic fields that float cars friction-free along guideways at speeds of more than 300 mph. If one were built between Baltimore and Washington, it could cut the commute between the cities to 16 minutes.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater will be in Baltimore to grant as much as $3 million for a formal study of maglev here, state officials say. Several other urban areas -- including Pittsburgh, Atlanta and southern California -- also are considered likely to receive grants.
"I'm delighted that this project is finally moving," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, and a longtime advocate for the trains. "Potentially, this could have the same effect on Baltimore that the B&O Railroad had on the city in 1829. From what I'm hearing, Baltimore is clearly the favorite site at the moment."
With the study funds, which require matching state money, transportation officials in Maryland and Washington will embark on a one-year feasibility study.
For a decade, planners and politicians in Maryland have lobbied for a maglev train. Although Congress in 1991 planned to help finance a prototype, support faltered. The trains continued being tested abroad, impressing riders, including a number of key members of congressional transportation committees.
Last year, Congress approved a plan to have a maglev prototype operating in the United States by 2006. The cost is expected to be about $1 billion -- roughly the amount approved recently for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project.
The price tag has been the key barrier to a commercial maglev system anywhere. Passengers in Germany may travel the train only on a loop that goes nowhere. In Japan, it is being tested.
The trains work on the principle that opposite magnetic poles attract and similar ones repel. Maglev trains use powerful electromagnets to float and propel cars along guideways. No contact is made between the rail and car, so the system does not suffer the wear and tear that occurs on conventional trains and tracks.
The route would run between Camden Yards in Baltimore and Union Station in Washington, with a possible stop at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Three possible locations for the line are being considered.
Among Maryland's assets for maglev funding: the relatively short 40 miles between Baltimore and Washington; the proximity to members of Congress; existing rights-of-way between the two cities that could mean less construction expense; and the East Coast's heavy congestion. If maglev worked here, it conceivably could be extended up the Northeast Corridor to New York.
Advocates also believe the project would tie Baltimore and Washington further and help the region's bid for the 2012 summer Olympic games.
"I've been confident all along that this is one of the best projects in the country," said Phyllis Wilkins of the Baltimore Development Corp.
The Maryland study would begin almost immediately and evaluate cost, ridership and financing.
Pub Date: 5/21/99