Supertrain is cool, but improve what we have right now

First priority should be public transportation expansion and improvements

September 07, 2014|Dan Rodricks

So, first question: If you could travel to the nation's capital from Baltimore in 15 minutes by super-fast train, would you? Sure you would. You'd give it a try at least once, if only to brag that you had achieved land speed of 300 mph. It would be a bucket list kind of thing.

But would you go to the District of Columbia more often if you could get there in 15 minutes? I mean, really: Would having a high-speed train between Baltimore and Washington make you more interested in things D.C. — the Hirshhorn, the Nationals, protests in Lafayette Square, decriminalized pot?

Here's another question: Would high-speed rail change your life? Would you consider taking a Washington job in which you currently have no interest because it involves either moving there or commuting each day on a conventional train? (Not that there's anything wrong with a conventional train. More on that in a minute.)

Those are at least some of the questions Baltimoreans might have at the prospect of a "maglev" (magnetic levitation) train system between here and there.

This idea seems to have gained traction.

Some maglevites — my word for the dreamers who wander in the vast American desert of high-speed transit — have lined up more than $5 billion from the Japanese government to get the project rolling at long last.

A group of maglevites informed the Maryland Public Service Commission of this important development this week. They also asked for rights to the old Washington Baltimore & Annapolis Electric Railroad. That sounds like something from another century, and it was. In the early 20th century, a group of entrepreneurs developed an electric rail car system to transport passengers from Baltimore to Annapolis and Washington. The system lasted a little more than three decades.

It ended around the time of the Depression, but the economic collapse wasn't the only reason for the WB&A's demise. The automobile contributed mightily to it. The electric-powered streetcars of Baltimore lasted longer, but their tracks were eventually paved over, too.

Since then, the automobile has ruled. We've built beltways and interstates for more and more automobiles burning more and more fossil fuel. We have congested roads. We have roads and bridges in constant need of costly maintenance.

For decades, almost all community planning has started with the automobile as its premise. Hundreds of thousands of people in the region live in places only reachable by car. In recent surveys, nearly 60 percent of Maryland households had at least two vehicles.

We have to move in the opposite direction — not only toward greener cars, but away from cars as the primary way of transporting humans from here to there, especially in daily travels.

Pardon the pun, but for reasons economic as well as environmental, we're at a crossroads. In fact, we've been stuck at this crossroads for a long time, and we need to make a hard turn toward mass transit.

Do we need a Baltimore-Washington supertrain?

A maglev would certainly be cool, but with cost estimates in the many billions — far beyond what Japan has committed so far — should taxpayers back something just because it's cool? Should we be helping Japan showcase a costly transportation technology that is more luxury than necessity?

If transportation and business leaders are gung-ho about public-private partnerships in transportation projects, let them channel their gung-honess (and their capital) into improving the systems we already have, and selling the public on using them.

"Far be it from me to suggest [maglev] shouldn't be done if an adequate customer base and supporting investment resources can be found," says David Pickeral, a former Baltimorean who works in intelligent transportation systems for IBM in Virginia. "I think it's a fascinating technology, and I frankly would like to see it.

"But I am concerned that such bleeding-edge, wow-factor projects are all hugely expensive and involve building entirely new infrastructure rather than maintaining and optimizing what is there now."

Key words: What is there now.

"Sure it would be good to travel from Baltimore to Washington in 15 minutes," he says. "But what if a person living in an outer suburb could get reliable information in real time about bus or light rail lines to save half an hour of commuting each way to an office or service job down near the Inner Harbor, and reliably be on time for work and reliably be back home to take care of their children?"

Pardon another pun: Pickeral is on the right track.

Improve what we have. Make train service between Washington and New York easier to access and more affordable. We don't need to travel at 300 mph when 150 or 200 will do — and apparently that kind of speed can be achieved without costly maglev technology.

Make the conventional commuter trains better and faster.

Expand bus systems powered by natural gas. Increase commuter lines from the suburbs and across the suburbs. Improve all realms of public transportation. Do that, and persuading more people to give up their cars for daily commutes won’t be that hard -- even without a super-cool super-train.

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