Balto. Co. funding of maglev questioned

Auditors want to cut high-tech train study from 2002 budget

May 19, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The logic seems inescapable.

Baltimore County last year granted the state $60,000 that the state didn't spend to study a proposed magnetic levitation train that wouldn't even go to Baltimore County.

To boot, the counties the train would go through and one it would stop in, Anne Arundel, haven't spent a dime on the thing.

So when Baltimore County auditors looked for possible cuts in the fiscal 2002 budget, to be approved this month, they found plenty of reasons to recommend against the $100,000 earmarked for the study this year. Several councilmen said they could be persuaded to cut it.

"I support the concept of the Baltimore region getting maglev, but I'm a little hard-pressed to see why Baltimore County taxpayers need to contribute toward it," said Councilman Kevin Kamenetz.

Maglev boosters say that's just what Pennsylvania wants people to think.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will decide in the next two years whether to build a magnetic levitation train between Washington and Baltimore or from the Pittsburgh airport to that city and on to a suburb.

The train, which would be propelled by high-powered magnets on a friction-free rail, would make the trip from Washington to Baltimore in as little as 16 minutes. Supporters say maglev could be a key to the region's bid for the 2012 Olympics.

The $100,000 earmarked by Baltimore County is a drop in the $9 million bucket of federal and state funds that will go for an environmental impact study of the pro- posed route, from Washington Union Station to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Baltimore's Camden Yards.

But as the region scrabbles with its rival in the world of levitating bullet trains, the symbolic effect of that money becomes much greater.

The maglev project is expected to cost $3 billion or more, and the federal government has tentatively agreed to fund less than a third of that, so the key phrase these days is "public-private partnership."

Pennsylvania transportation officials are more than happy to discuss how much outside cash they have received ($250,000) and how little private funding the Baltimore-Washington proposal has.

"I don't think you have any private money so far, do you?" said Rick J. Peltz, a deputy secretary in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who likes to talk about transportation and regionalism (and who is said to be considering a run for statewide office), opposes cutting the funds, to put it mildly.

"He's a believer in regionalism, and this project is important to the region," said Elise A. Armacost, Ruppersberger's spokeswoman. "He supports innovative ways to unite the Washington and Baltimore areas. Those are the economic engines of the state, and he feels we should try to link them."

A county government's $100,000 isn't quite the same as Pennsylvania's claim of a quarter-million from the private sector, but it does begin to answer the question of where two cash-strapped cities and one state government expect to find the $2 billion it will take to literally get this train off the ground.

Showing the Federal Railroad Administration that the Baltimore-Washington proposal has contributions from the counties will help show that the political commitment exists to round up all of the other support the project would need, said Suhair Alkhatib, project manager for the Baltimore-Washington Maglev project.

"I think the FRA is going to look very favorably on the contributions from the counties," Alkhatib said.

Baltimore and Washington have appropriated funding before and have been asked for $100,000 each this year. Alkhatib said the state also asked Howard and Anne Arundel counties for funds, but they declined.

Officials in both counties said they're not aware of such a request and don't have plans to contribute. The Department of Transportation will look at a variety of factors in deciding which proposal is chosen, including environmental impact and benefits vs. costs, said Corry Schiermeyer, a spokeswoman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Because the project will require about $2 billion in nonfederal funds, the department will also look closely at state and local support, Schiermeyer said.

"Yes, that is an important part of the criteria we look into," she said. "A strong financial plan and commitment is important."

The project's cost is why maglev critics have argued against investing in it. The current project is being referred to as a maglev prototype, not so much because the technology is unproven but because the market is.

Maglev is not that much faster than high-speed rail in France and Japan, but it's much more expensive, said Vukan R. Vuchic, professor of transportation engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. The Baltimore-Washington maglev plan envisions speeds up to 240 mph, but for much less money, Amtrak's existing high-speed rail could be upgraded to accommodate speeds of more than 200 mph, he said.

Maglev revenue projections for 2010, the proposed first year of service, are based on one-way fares of $24.25 between Baltimore and Washington, roughly $17.50 in current dollars. Amtrak charges $22 for a coach ticket and $35 on the Metroliner. MARC tickets cost $5.70, but a commuter using a monthly pass rides for about $3.58 a trip.

Amtrak carries about 600 passengers a day between Baltimore and Washington, Vuchic said. MARC carries 4,000 to 5,000. The maglev plan estimates 35,400 passengers a day.

"You're only serving one point in Washington and one point in Baltimore, so on what basis do you expect you would get 60 times more passengers" than Amtrak, Vuchic said. "Would you spend $3.5 billion to create an extra link on the same point to point?"

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