Howard makes tracks to oppose Maglev plan

To officials' surprise, one route option cuts through big development

April 13, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The speedy Maglev train that Maryland officials are promoting as a new East Coast transportation option could be years from construction, if it is ever built, but it has Howard County officials and developers blinking.

To the surprise of local leaders, state transportation planners drew one of three alternative routes through Emerson, a huge mixed-use Rouse Co. planned community along Interstate 95 near Savage, where $400,000 to $500,000 homes are beginning to rise.

State and county politicians - usually friendly to new rail transit plans - are turning against Maglev, arguing that it would be a waste of money and would do nothing for Howard County except bring trouble.

"It's a train for executives, highly paid executives," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Columbia Democrat.

He and others argue that the $500 million Maryland would be expected to contribute to the project could be better used for more conventional transportation projects with a greater local impact.

State officials say the I-95 route was created in 1994, before the Emerson development was approved. The route also traverses Lennox Park, a 50-home community along Route 103 near the Dorsey MARC commuter rail station.

Howard officials and builders have just awakened to the Maglev route and its implications, thanks to a prospective Emerson buyer.

"A family buying a house called and asked what's the status of this [Maglev] line. We couldn't answer the question," said Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of Rouse Co.

Rouse, which developed Columbia, is building a suburban village on 570 acres, with 1,215 homes and apartments and 1.8 million square feet of commercial and retail space. Emerson straddles I-95 at Route 216.

Scavo wrote to state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, saying the proposed route "has already cast a pall over home sales," and he vowed to "vigorously oppose this implied, or real taking [of land]."

Scavo had no answers. Neither did Howard County Executive James N. Robey, chairman of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. Robey also wrote to Porcari, requesting a public meeting in Howard County on the Maglev route. The meeting has been scheduled for April 30 at Murray Hill Middle School in North Laurel.

The Baltimore-Washington area is competing with Pittsburgh for federal money to help build the 240-mph, $3.5 billion train. If this area wins, trains would whisk about 35,000 people a day between the two cities, with a stop at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Trains would run every 10 minutes during peak rush hours.

Maglev project manager Suhair Alkhatib said the trains would take 30,000 vehicles off the roads, helping Maryland with its worsening air pollution and congestion problems.

The three alternative routes will be narrowed to two late this year, said Suzanne Bond, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transit Administration. An environmental study has established that 153 houses are within 100 feet of the proposed 40-mile rail line, she said.

Alkhatib said any route selected will be adjusted to minimize its impact. The train would be elevated over about half of the route to clear obstacles, he said, and the high speeds require that it follow a fairly straight course. That's why the route veers off I-95 south of Route 32 and across Emerson.

"There is room to adjust the alignment," Alkhatib said.

Robey said he is keeping an open mind on Maglev because he doesn't have enough information on which to base an opinion. "We need to consider all the options on regional transportation," the county executive said.

Others have doubts. "We had heard the I-95 alignment would be within the I-95 right of way. I have concerns about the whole project," said County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Alkhatib said commuters would make up fewer than 20 percent of riders, 40 percent would go to BWI, and the rest would be tourists and conventioneers. The one-way fare between Baltimore and Washington would be $26.

"It's not mass transit. Maglev is about the [2012] Olympics. What that does for our constituents is nothing except impact their neighborhoods," said Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard Democrat who opposes the route. The Baltimore-Washington area is competing to attract the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Lora Muchmore, who lives about a mile from Emerson, asked, "Who is going to develop? Who is going to buy in an area that potentially could be chosen? I work in Arlington, Va., but I cannot get on this train."

The reaction in tiny Lennox Park was surprise.

"Get out of here. I didn't even know," said Carol Martin, a longtime Lennox Park resident who thought the route would pass through Anne Arundel County, where Linthicum residents have organized against Maglev.

Homebuilders are trying to calm fears.

Harry "Chip" Lundy, president of the Williamsburg Group, which is building houses in Emerson, said he learned about the proposed Maglev route Thursday. He said he doubts it will affect home sales.

"Are people not going to buy homes in Washington, D.C., because they're worried about a nuclear attack?" he said. "The likelihood of that is greater than the train going through Emerson."

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