`Maglev' trains could speed growth over Md., some say

The Outlook

Others skeptical, believe Baltimore region lacks enough density

May 30, 1999|By Sean Somerville

RODNEY SLATER, U.S. Transportation secretary, said last week that Maryland and six other states will share $12.2 million to study the feasibility of magnetic levitation trains.

The high-speed "maglev" trains travel at speeds of about 250 mph using magnetic fields that float cars friction-free along guideways -- fast enough to travel from Washington's Union Station to Baltimore's Camden Yards in 16 minutes.

Maglev trains are not in operation anywhere in the world, but the Baltimore-Washington proposal is described as a strong contender in the race for a national prototype to be chosen next year. Maryland has requested $3 million in federal funds and has promised matching funds.

Are maglev trains a good idea for the region? What are the potential economic effects of developing a maglev system?

Charles McMillion

Chief economist for MBG Information Services, Washington

I've been a big booster of maglev for Baltimore for a long time. It's important for the north and south connection with cities like Philadelphia and Washington, but also for the east-west connection for places like Hagerstown, Cumberland, and further west to Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago.

For the state, one of the concerns in smart growth and economic development is to move some of the growth out of the Interstate 95 corridor and into the west toward Frederick and Hagerstown.

Maglev could be a real boon to those areas, as well as the obvious access to Washington, Philadelphia and New York. Speeding up access in the Northeast corridor and tying the metropolitan areas together is very important.

When you think 10 and 20 years ahead, you're thinking of much more congestion than we have right now. Think back 10 or 20 years ago and consider how much more congested we've become.

We don't want this kind of massive concentration to continue. We've seen the lowest gas prices probably in this century, so the economics of commuting is not quite so ridiculous as it might otherwise be. After all, most of the world pays three or four times what we pay for gas.

Robert H. Nelson

Professor of Environmental Policy, University of Maryland, College Park

I don't have any problem with spending small amounts of money to look at it. I'm a little skeptical that it would work. Mass transit tends to be overrated as a solution to a lot of urban problems.

Urban planners tend to see rail as an anti-sprawl solution. They've used fixed-rail mass transit to try to solve problems in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Those systems basically have not worked very well. They are under-utilized and expensive.

Basically, mass transit has to have very high density. It works in places like New York. Manhattan is the perfect place for mass transit.

They used to have the train that went from Washington to Camden Yards. But even with 45,000 people going to baseball games, they still couldn't sustain it.

But again, if somebody wants to spend a little money to look at it, that's fine. Let them prove me wrong.

Robert O. C. Worcester

President, Maryland Business for Responsive Government

High-speed rail could distribute economic development toward Western Maryland. That's an attractive idea. Lots of the population of Montgomery County has pushed north and west, and that should probably continue. It could ultimately alleviate density in the Washington-Baltimore corridor.

You've got to look at anything of this sort as a great leap forward. Transportation has arguably been the state's most conspicuous asset, dating back to Colonial times. Arguably, this maglev thing would be the next generation in maximizing that.

But we hope projects like this don't turn into the Christopher Columbus Science Center, with gobs of money, no plan and no outcome and more than $100 million spent.

I just feel as though in this state, a lot of our public officials think of economic development in terms of big public works projects, instead of things like tax cuts.

Why are we always thinking about big public works projects instead of nurturing the private sector?

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