State eyes super train

Md. 1 of 2 finalists in bid for futuristic magnetic transit line

Balto.-D.C. rail envisioned

Local officials elated by 11th-hour ruling on Clinton's watch

January 19, 2001|By Marcia Myers | By Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

In an 11th-hour announcement greeted locally with celebration and relief, Maryland yesterday was named one of two finalists in the bid to build the nation's first super-speed magnetic levitation train.

Choosing from among seven candidates in the waning hours of the Clinton administration, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said proposals from Maryland and Pittsburgh, the other finalist, stood out because of financial and community support for the projects.

Slater yesterday called the train "one of the most futuristic projects in transportation."

"The real push for this is coming not from Washington but from cities across the country," he said.

Projects from Nevada, California, Florida, Louisiana and Georgia also were in the running.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a longtime supporter, summarized her feelings in a single word: "Hallelujah!"

"It says this country is going to be at the cutting edge of [transportation] technology," she said.

In advancing as a finalist, Maryland's project will share $14 million in federal funds with Pennsylvania and receive matching state and local money to go forward with refining environmental, ridership and financial studies. A site is expected to be chosen next year. Maryland's plan envisions having a train in operation by 2010.

"Maglev" trains use magnetic fields to propel cars along a friction-free rail at speeds of more than 300 miles per hour. The train could reduce a trip between Baltimore and Washington to as few as 16 minutes.

For more than a decade, the project has been on the state's drawing boards. Skeptics deride it as a pipe dream. But proponents say it is a high-tech solution to looming gridlock in the air and on the highways.

"Sometimes it takes a long time, but when you have an innovative enterprise of this magnitude, it's worth the wait," Townsend said.

Many view Maryland's plan as the first phase of a 21st-century rail system that could be expanded along most of the Eastern Seaboard. A specific route hasn't been chosen, but the state's $3.8 billion plan would run trains along a course between Camden Yards and Union Station in Washington, with one stop at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The region would experience a significant boost economically, from both construction and tourism, if the train were built here, said Phyllis Wilkins of the Baltimore Development Corp. It's also considered a potential asset in the region's bid to hold the 2012 Olympic Games

"People will come just to say they've ridden on it," Wilkins said. Businesses are more likely to locate in Baltimore if they know employees can hop a train and get to D.C. in a few minutes, she added. "It's putting life back into our center cities, where it needs to be."

Those who have ridden a demonstration train in Germany describe the ride as quiet, smooth and "like flying on the ground."

Despite Maryland's acknowledged edge in the competition for the project, local supporters in recent weeks braced for bad news.

As the clock ticked down on the Clinton administration, state planners and politicians feared that Slater would defer the choice of finalists to the Republicans, leaving the project and Maryland's bid for it with an uncertain future. He had quietly stated his intention not to make the choice, according to some. As the transition in Washington grew closer, a new round of lobbying was undertaken in the past two weeks to press for a decision before the inauguration.

"All of the people who have been championing this for a long time reached out to Slater and said you can't let this slide to the next administration," said Wilkins.

Those contacts culminated with a call to Slater on Wednesday morning from Townsend, who has had numerous discussions about maglev with the secretary.

"She said, `I really want this to happen on your watch. Let's not wait until after Saturday,'" said Alan Fleischmann, Townsend's chief of staff.

Slater said yesterday that he intended all along to announce finalists before leaving office. The decision is far from a final green light for maglev, however. While garnering support from the Clinton administration, it is unclear how much interest the new president and his team will have in the project.

Congress recently refused to act on a request to lend Amtrak $10 billion to expand more conventional high-speed rail lines.

And, around the world, maglev has found a lukewarm reception.

After billions of dollars were invested to test the system over decades, officials in Germany recently abandoned plans to build a maglev line between Hamburg and Berlin, noting the cost. Another train is being tested in Japan. And although reports surfaced this week that Shanghai is about to sign a contract to build a maglev system, none is operating commercially anywhere in the world.

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