The long-talked-about dream of a super-speed, 16-minute rail link between Baltimore and Washington seemed closer than ever just a month ago, when the Clinton administration was poised to announce at least one finalist among seven regions bidding to build a prototype.
Maryland's pitch for a $3.8 billion dollar magnetic levitation train has been a solid favorite, trumpeted as an asset even in the region's bid for the 2012 Olympics.
But now, with little more than a week of Clinton's term remaining, bureaucrats have yet to choose from among the contenders. In Maryland and six other states, fear of being on the rejection list has been replaced with a new worry - that the national "maglev" project could die altogether if the decision is punted to the Republicans.
On Capitol Hill, word is that Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater will punt.
"There's not going to be a decision before the administration ends," said a congressional source familiar with discussions. "There's a lot of problems with maglev. The Democrats are on their way out - why should they put their name on a white elephant?"
Asked his intentions at a meeting Monday in Washington, Slater was noncommittal.
"I do believe there is a future for maglev," he said. But when Congress recently balked at lending Amtrak $10 billion to expand its high-speed rail lines, it weakened the project, he said.
The trains, which have been tested in Germany and Japan, rely on magnetic fields that float cars along friction-free guides at speeds of more than 300 mph. They are described as quiet, safe and environmentally clean.
The maglev concept has been on the table in Maryland for more than a decade. Planners see it as a keystone in a high-tech solution to the region's mounting transportation problems. And in a vision shared by many, a Baltimore-Washington line would become the first leg of a 21st-century rail system stretching along the eastern seaboard, with trains fast enough to compete with air travel.
Locally, the train would travel between Camden Yards and Union Station, with a stop at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Paying for the project would require a $950 million federal grant, $500 million in state and local contributions, and the balance from private investors, according to the state's plan.
Even as lobbying has intensified to coax a decision from Slater before Jan. 20, an independent study attacking the Maryland proposal circulated this week in Baltimore and Washington.
"The problem is that you are introducing a system that is totally incompatible with anything else," said Vukan Vuchic, a University of Pennsylvania transportation engineer who wrote the report. "Is it equal to or better than other systems? That has never been proven."
According to Vuchic's study, commissioned by Baltimore's Citizens Planning and Housing Association, Maryland's plan overestimates the train's potential speed and its appeal with the public.
"The whole project is aimed at finding the most reasonable possible place to build this new technology to try it," he said. "But there is no demand for it."
He and other critics are quick to note that outside of demonstration trains, there is no maglev system providing regular passenger service anywhere in the world. After billions of dollars invested and decades of development in Germany, supporters last year backed off from a plan to build a maglev track between Hamburg and Berlin, saying it would cost too much.
"A number of our concerns were borne out by what the report found," said Ralph Moore of the Center for Poverty Solutions in Baltimore. "We were always afraid maglev would become the proverbial tail wagging the dog. There are clearly better places where we can spend our dollars."
Phyllis Wilkins of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development agency, dismissed Vuchic's conclusions. The difference between magnetic levitation and traditional rail is what is needed to transform transportation in the region, she said.
"High-speed rail is tapped out, you can't go any faster," she said. "If you're going to get people out of the airlines and cars, you have to introduce something more efficient. You can't just pave the entire Northeast corridor."
Maglev supporters say the project would have little effect on Amtrak's high-speed Acela project, which began service a month ago. But against leading contenders such as Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Las Vegas, the rival train could prove to be Maryland's biggest obstacle to getting maglev, if it does go forward.
"If you have an area with a very heavy commitment to rail, do you introduce a completely different technology?" said Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. And if the decision is left to Republicans, he added, Maryland could well see its chances evaporate.
"Even if they decide they like it," said Capon, "what are they going to think about the project going to a state with a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators?"