The `maglev' finals

Fast trains: Good Baltimore-Washington bid should not detract from regional planning.

January 21, 2001

BALTIMORE IS IN the finals again -- and this time it has nothing to do with football.

The city -- with its partner, Washington -- is one of two remaining contenders for the nation's first magnetic-levitation train line.

Our 300-mph train would get passengers from Camden Yards to Union Station in D.C. in 16 minutes, according to the Maryland Department or Transportation's plans.

The other finalist is Pittsburgh, which proposes to build a line from its airport to the city and suburbs.

The finalists will split $14 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to conduct more studies. The winner could receive $950 million to design and build a system. The project also would require state funding.

Obviously, we think the 40-mile Baltimore-Washington proposal is better. But it's not just because we're locals.

The line eventually could connect other cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Boston, creating an East Coast high-speed rail thruway. Even if the Pittsburgh line eventually extends 300 miles to Philadelphia, that route lacks the density, and therefore the efficiency, of an East Coast line.

The Baltimore-Washington case is also bolstered by the joint bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, which would use sports complexes in both cities and require fast travel between the two.

But don't get too excited yet. Maglev, which uses powerful magnets to propel trains with little noise or vibration, isn't a proven commercial venture. Germany and Japan have been developing maglev trains for decades, but neither country is operating them commercially. A year ago, Germany canceled plans for an approximately 150-mile Berlin-Hamburg route after officials said the line would lose money, and there was concern that the magnets would harm wildlife. The overseas difficulties raise a yield sign we should respect.

Still, planners ought to be excited about reaching the finals, even though they shouldn't go wholeheartedly into maglev and forget their primary responsibility to provide good regional transportation.

It's another potential win for our region -- one that might just be as important as the Super Bowl.

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