By Kate Alexander
WASHINGTON – The Baltimore-Washington region was tapped Thursday as one of two finalists for a proposed $3.8 billion high-speed train that could cut transit time between the two cities to 16 minutes.
The region and Pittsburgh will share a $14.2 million federal grant for further research into the development of a magnetic-levitation train, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater.
“Maglev” trains float on an electromagnetic field above track-like guideways. By eliminating the friction between the tracks and wheels, a maglev train can travel in excess of 240 mph.
Maryland’s proposed line could link downtown Baltimore, Baltimore- Washington International Airport and Union Station in Washington, D.C., as early as 2010. Officials in the two cities said that would be a major asset in their bid for the 2012 Olympic Games.
“Maglev would bring tremendous relief and opportunities to Maryland,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Baltimore. “A maglev system would reduce congestion on urban and suburban roads, improve safety on highways and byways, improve air quality and bring economic development and new jobs to the region.”
The ability to unite the two metropolitan is also considered one of the primary benefits of this extensive project. There are three possible alignments for Maryland’s maglev line — along Interstate 95, the Amtrak right-of-way or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
“Maglev is fast, maglev is clean, maglev is the future, and it is going to bring Baltimore and Washington closer together,” said Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.
As late as Wednesday afternoon, however, O’Malley and other officials feared maglev might not be in their future. O’Malley said Wednesday that he expected Slater, who leaves office Saturday, would not announce the finalists in the seven-region field, leaving it instead to the incoming Bush administration.
But he and other local officials basked in the unexpected good news.
This infusion of $14.2 million will let Maryland and Pennsylvania conduct additional research on ridership, revenues and environmental impact from their proposed routes. The winner will get an additional $950 million in federal funds to build a pilot system.
But that would cover only a quarter of the total bill for the project, however, with state and local governments kicking in $500 million, and 60 percent of the tab picked up by private investors.
Both Maryland and Pennsylvania predict that maglev would cost in excess of $10 million per mile.
Kenneth R. Timmerman of the Maryland Taxpayers Association called the cost “ridiculous,” given its small-scale, and said the money will eventually come out of the taxpayer’s pocket. He said there are other projects, such as the Inter- County Connector, that would better serve the needs of commuters.
Mitch McCalmon of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce also questioned whether this project was the panacea that officials claim.
“It is certainly great news that the maglev project will move forward,” he said. “But I don’t know that maglev is a project that will ease congestion. . . .It is more of a showcase piece.”
He did note that while the tangible benefits will be minimal, maglev’s contribution to the Olympic bid will be substantial.
The maglev train offers the kind of “panache of technology” that could impress the international Olympic committee, said Dan Knise, president and chief executive officer of Washington/Baltimore Regional 2012 Coalition.
“It does help our bid to have it,” Knise said.
But the rail project is not crucial to the coalition’s bid. The area already has a good transportation network to move people through an Olympic corridor that would stretch from Baltimore and Annapolis to Northern Virginia.
A maglev prototype has been developed by a German company whose U.S. affiliate, Transrapid International-USA, has an agreement with Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Co. Those companies are expected to have a hand in both the Maryland and Pennsylvania projects.
Mikulski noted that this technology is “not dreamworks technology, not Tinker-Toy technology. . .but the transportation of the future.” — CNS reporters Greg Lamm and Robert Patrick contributed to this story.