Mishandling maglev

March 22, 2004

THE NOTION THAT soon there will be sleek, high-tech trains hurtling along at 300 miles per hour on a cushion of air, shuttling commuters between Baltimore and Washington, has long been a beguiling image. Magnetic levitation technology, or maglev, has also been accompanied by serious reservations. Is it feasible? Cost-effective? Safe?

But those questions have never provided a reason to reject the maglev project. Rather, they are the reason why it must be studied further. Lawmakers need to find out as much as possible about its potential rewards and its risks. And then, when all the available information is gathered, to make an informed decision about whether to build a maglev system here.

That's why it would be fundamentally wrong for the General Assembly to ban the Maryland Department of Transportation from spending federal funds on maglev right now. Transportation officials say the restriction, added by a Senate committee to the proposed state budget, would prevent them from completing an environmental impact statement. The federal government has set aside $1 million to finalize the study, but officials claim they wouldn't be able to spend the federal appropriation because of the potential restriction.

The Assembly adopted similar budget language last year to prevent state money from being used on a maglev study. That was inconvenient, but this decision might prove fatal - particularly if the federal government goes forward with its decade-old plan to build a prototype maglev line. The Baltimore-Washington route is one of two finalists for the prototype. The other is a route between downtown Pittsburgh and that city's airport.

Imagine maglev's benefits - a 20-minute connection between the cities, less traffic and air pollution in the corridor, a potential for $2.5 billion or more in federal spending for the region, and the possibility of becoming the birthplace of a new transportation technology. That shouldn't be dismissed out of hand by a few senators along the possible maglev route with parochial concerns.

Fortunately, the Senate's counterparts in the House of Delegates so far have rejected the prohibition on maglev spending in their version of the budget. We can only hope that the House view will prevail; it's foolish to kill maglev now. By refusing to be fully informed on the subject, the Senate is demonstrating a new way to run a railroad: Kill it now, answer questions never.

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