Backers of maglev train are betting big on a vision that has failed before

High-speed rail technology has been pitched unsuccessfully in region for two decades

  • Central Japan Railway Co.'s Maglev train, which is levitated and propelled forward by magnetic force, speeds at an 18.4 kilometre test track in Tsuru, west of Tokyo June 10, 2004.
Central Japan Railway Co.'s Maglev train, which is levitated… (Reuters )
September 27, 2014|Kevin Rector | The Baltimore Sun

The circle of political power brokers and deep-pocketed investors hatched their plan more than three years ago, seeing promise in a project deemed wildly unrealistic by some and stubbornly unattainable by others.

With billions in backing from the Japanese government, the Northeast Maglev group envisions building a futuristic magnetic levitation or "maglev" train capable of transporting Baltimore homeowners to Washington jobs in 15 minutes, at speeds above 300 mph.

Plenty in Maryland think it will never happen or shouldn't, given the price tag in excess of $10 billion. Yet the group's members — including former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, three former governors of Northeast corridor states, two former U.S. secretaries of transportation and Under Armour founder Kevin Plank — are so keen on the idea that they've already dropped $40 million into studying the economics of the project, without securing a dime of federal, state or local funding.

"What we really wanted to do was be sure we had a good handle on the entire project itself, what it looked like, what we could offer, what the benefits would be, where the money would come from," said Wayne Rogers, the group's chairman and CEO and a longtime political operative in the state. "All of the risk money and risk capital that we've been expending to date is all private money."

The group eventually wants to extend the line to New York and beyond to Boston, shattering existing travel times along one of the busiest corridors in the world.

It's a bold strategy that flips the burgeoning state model of public-private partnerships on its head. Most projects don't get started without first attracting federal funding, and big private investments are secured from future equity holders, not from bank loans, only after substantial design and preparation work is completed under government grants.

Rogers and his cohorts, instead, are betting that a $5 billion loan from the public Japan Bank for International Cooperation and a waiver of technology licensing fees from the private Central Japan Railway Co. on the front end will attract an additional $5 billion or more in federal and private investments.

"They would not make an offer of financing the project if they didn't think this project was realistic," Rogers said of the Japanese.

The group hopes that optimism will be contagious, or at least hard to ignore.

Others aren't sold, including some longtime backers of bringing maglev to the state.

"A project like this needs both state and federal buy-in, and because it's been out of the public eye for a while, people have lost interest in it," said Phyllis Wilkins, who led a 20-year push to bring German maglev technology to Maryland before retiring in 2012. "I know people who used to be supportive of the project who now say, 'If we can just get the Red Line built!'"

How the new proposal will stack up against the previous one remains unclear, mostly because many details about the new proposal remain unknown.

The group expects to need at least $10 billion, but the final cost will depend on the exact route, the amount of tunneling or elevated track needed, and a wide array of other factors, such as soil density and construction cost increases during development.

"When you're talking things that are measured in hundreds of millions of dollars a mile, a mile here or a mile there matters," Rogers said.

Still, the group believes the first leg from Washington to Baltimore will be financially sustainable with ticket costs similar to those for Amtrak's Acela service, which ranged from $42 to $95 Monday, depending on time and class of ticket. Extending the line to New York would make it an even bigger winner, he said.

The group predicts that the project — which would have three stations in Washington, at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and in Baltimore — would generate $437 million and 5,500 jobs annually from increased visitor spending in Maryland and increase median residential property values around the Baltimore station by 30 percent. It also would expand the employee pool for city employers and offer residents access to more jobs in a larger region.

Wilkins said her group, Maglev Maryland, was riding high once, too.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the federal government was intrigued by maglev and asked for proposals to build lines around the country, Wilkins and her collaborators, including Bob Embry of the Abell Foundation and Jack Kinstlinger of contractor KCI, secured millions in funding to study maglev in Maryland. They got all the way through the notoriously laborious environmental impact study process and submitted a draft to the Federal Railroad Administration.

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