Put maglev, rail plan on fast track together

January 27, 2003|By Tom Wilcox and Don Fry

TWO IMPORTANT and highly visible efforts to transform Baltimore's regional transportation system have been put forth - the magnetic levitation train, or maglev, and the MTA's regional rail plan, a collaboratively developed 40-year blueprint for the area's mass transit system.

These two are not, as some might suggest, rival predators struggling for control of a single bone of attention and funding.

Neither are they separate but equally crucial opportunities for our city and state.

In fact, maglev and the rail plan offer a happy synergy, like the parallel rails - or the pair of opposing magnets - of Baltimore's track to the future.

By opening Baltimore's underpopulated residential communities to Washington workers hungry for convenient, convivial and moderately priced neighborhoods, maglev promises to repopulate our urban area, shore up our city's tax base and set the stage for a rebirth of city life fueled by improved services and expanded amenities.

Baltimore's success could be the model for other aging industrial cities in proximity to overpriced but job-rich centers: Philadelphia or New Haven, Conn., and New York, for example, or Providence, R.I., and Boston. In all cases, the repopulation of urban areas would slow suburban sprawl and preserve our dwindling green spaces.

But maglev needs the regional rail plan, and that plan needs maglev.

Maryland announced in November that its priority in building the rail system - which would add 66 miles of rail to the existing 55 miles in the region - is an east-west line from Woodlawn to Fells Point and an extension of the Metro subway in Northeast Baltimore.

The state hopes to win federal approval to build those lines this year and to get trains running by 2012.

Baltimore's end of a rapid commuter connection to Washington shouldn't be a park and ride; it demands a local connection as efficient as the Washington Metro, connected to all of our distinctive neighborhoods. Maglev commuters would require excellence from our local mass transit, the comprehensive and efficient system promised by the regional rail plan.

And what would our rail plan gain from maglev?

One of the many reasons Baltimore's transit system has languished in inefficiency and disrepair is that, unlike in Washington, New York, Boston and San Francisco, a broad range of regular transit users, including higher-income members of the middle class, has not been cultivated in our city. In cities with excellent transit systems, well-off middle-class executives as well as lower-income workers regularly ride transit.

Maglev would open Baltimore's mass transit system to a sector of transit ridership rarely seen on our buses, light rail and Metro. This broader range of riders would inherently generate a stronger demand for appropriate maintenance and enhancement of the high-quality system that the regional rail plan proposes to deliver.

Leading regional institutions - including the Abell Foundation, the Baltimore Community Foundation, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Downtown Partnership, the Greater Baltimore Alliance and the Greater Baltimore Committee - agree not only that maglev and the rail plan are interdependent but that Baltimore can't wait for the rail plan's proposed 40-year trajectory to get there. We need major components of the plan immediately and a conviction to deliver the whole package in a reasonable time period.

This could be an opportune moment for the Republican Party to lead a bipartisan effort to revivify our cities. Just as Richard Nixon surprised the world by opening China, creating a world economy, so might Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., President Bush and the new Republican Congress support transportation initiatives that would rebuild cities - and help build their political support in urban populations.

The keys are the interdependent maglev and regional rail plan.

Thomas E. Wilcox is president of the Baltimore Community Foundation. Donald C. Fry is president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

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