COLLEGE PARK – High-speed rail is the right transit for the nation, the Northeast Corridor and Maryland, says a new report on high speed rail released by a Maryland research organization.
Otis Rolley III, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, joined Maryland Public Interest Research Group at a news conference Tuesday in Baltimore’s Penn Station to release the report.
High speed rail “makes sense for Maryland and the country,” Rolley said. “It is crucial we take the next step…to invest in a high speed rail project.”
The Maryland PIRG report, “The Right Track,” recommends connecting all major American cities with high-speed rail by 2050, with specific recommendations for each corridor. It also emphasizes the environmental benefits of mass transit, and the number of jobs that would be created — up to 1.6 million nationwide.
Maryland’s share of the initial $8 billion in federal high-speed rail grants was only about $70 million, which will help upgrade a tunnel in Baltimore and the station at BWI. Those kinds of upgrades are necessary for a future high speed rail line that would run through Maryland, Rep. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, said just after the grants were announced at the end of January.
But proponents of high-speed rail, like Rolley, are heartened by what they see as the major first step, even though he said the Northeast Corridor was “shortchanged” by the administration in the first round of grants.
Maryland PIRG advocate Fielding Huseth said his response to the accusation that Maryland did not receive significant funding is that only $8 billion was awarded out of $50 billion in requests from states, and Maryland received a proportional share.
While improvements to MARC commuter rail and Amtrak lines in Maryland would help with congestion and improve travel times, the creation of true high-speed rail, at speeds well over 100 mph, is partly hampered by a 2004 law.
A magnetic levitation rail line between Baltimore and Washington has been in the planning stages since 1992; however, Maryland legislators, led by State Sen. James E. DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel County, decided maglev technology was unproven and expensive, with a $4.4 billion construction cost.
For that reason, Maryland Senate Bill 508 says the state is not allowed to spend any funds “for the purpose of studying, developing, or constructing a Maglev system in the State.” DeGrange could not be reached for comment by deadline.
The legislative block is partly why Maryland’s recent request for $1.75 billion in federal funds for maglev was rejected, even though a matching state contribution was not required, said Phyllis Wilkins, executive director of Maglev Maryland, a program within the Baltimore Development Corporation.
Other high-speed rail systems are possible in theory, but the maglev project is the only one in Maryland with significant planning and support. However, Maryland is unlikely to receive most types of federal funding for maglev while the state is barred from contributing any matching funds, Rolley said.
“It’s going to take the political will on the part of our (Maryland) elected officials…to put a top priority on high speed rail,” said Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. “At the same time, the leadership has to come from the top, from Washington, saying, ‘Yes, we’re going to do this.'”
Other Maryland politicians have also voiced support for high-speed rail, including Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, both Democrats of Baltimore, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore. Sen. Cardin agrees with the Maryland PIRG report that “more money for transit like high-speed rail will create jobs,” said his spokeswoman Sue Walitsky.
Whether or not high-speed rail would come in the form of a maglev line will remain dependent on the law, said Walitsky, noting that federal funds usually require matching state contributions. Sen. Cardin is “pleased by the funding that has been flowing recently,” Walitsky said, but “we definitely need more.”