Maglev or Hyperloop? Pie, or pie a la mode? Discussions of two advanced transportation systems are hitting new levels of hype when Maryland doesn't (according to Gov. Larry Hogan) have the nickels to rub together for a Red Line in Baltimore or for a Purple Line that's fully funded enough to be a genuine advantage over existing suburban-perimeter bus lines.
Skepticism about these two very expensive ideas (about $10 billion just for the maglev) is emerging in contrast to the hyperventilating from Hogan (and business interests) about two technologies (one quite unproven) that would provide huge opportunities for profit in construction and in the assembly of new right of way. Meanwhile a perfectly good intercity rail system is being starved into uselessness by the state and by Congress.
Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has proposed a tunnel-based "hyperloop" that would send high-speed capsules from Baltimore to D.C. with a half-dozen passengers each (!). Gov. Hogan came back from his sell-Maryland trip to Japan with pictures of his ride on a functioning Japanese high-speed magnetic levitation train and $2 million in seed money from Japanese investors to get a feasibility study going for the project between Baltimore and D.C.
Sober and skeptical analyses of the cost and feasibility of both projects have floated around separately, even as Baltimore-Washington Corridor residential communities looked at the several right-of-way plans and grabbed their torches and pitchforks.
A meeting this past week (Nov. 26) at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt was organized by the delegates and senator in the local legislative District 22 and gathered some studious and well-informed opponents of the project - which among other things would probably pass through the old-growth Greenbelt Woods, a last vestige of the formerly gigantic U.S. agricultural reservation from which Greenbelt was carved by the locally revered First Lady during the Depression.
Dennis Brady, a former Bowie council member who is involved with the website stopthistrain.org, noted with satisfaction that public response to the maglev plan in northern Prince George's had evolved from a NIMBY stance in Bowie to an understanding that "this is a pocketbook issue" not only for local community values and stability but for U.S. taxpayers who would likely wind up footing the bill for the gauzy promises of public-private partnership that had led Hogan to enthuse that the state would not have to ante up any money.
County Councilwoman Danielle Glaros said that during a briefing of the council on the project, one submanager from the state transportation department had conceded that some state money would likely be needed. Members of the District 22 delegation vowed to stop the project in its tracks in the 2018 assembly session, which begins in January.
The latest takedown - of both projects considered together - comes from the excellent Baltimore Brew news site, which has deployed national transportation writer Alon Levy to analyze the cost and utility of both or either proposed system. Outlining the hype from Hogan and Musk, he asks: "But under scrutiny, do either of these proposals hold up as the right choice for Maryland's and Baltimore's transportation needs? Spoiler alert: the answer is no."
He has asked exactly the right question, because the disruptive effect of new right of way and unusual construction practices and patterns not only provides huge opportunities for big money to skim some more big money at the public's expense. It also ignores the existence of a serviceable but sadly under-maintained rail network on existing right of way, one that links intracity transit with intercity transit in the region's two major urban areas and has the potential to do even more with investment at only a fractional level of the cost of these whiz-bang new technologies.
People who know this writer - a science fiction fan for nearly seventy years - know how much it hurts to dismiss these fancy thrusts into the future. But the future for Maryland and the Baltimore-Washington Corridor that is its nerve-and-muscle pathway lies in firming up the existing transportation network and reducing automobile use in favor of electric-powered mass transit on rail or roads.
Why would that be better? The hyperloop first: as Levy says, entrepreneur Musk doesn't even have a proof of concept ”that is, an actual hyperloop system moving passengers at his claimed 760 mph. Musk is not only hawking a wholly unproven system, but he hasn't even bothered to make sure it has adequate capacity in the event the system does succeed."
Hyperloop and maglev also share a common problem - they are too short. Yep, the two cities are only forty miles apart, and "The sweet spot for high-speed rail is longer distance trips. [The Japanese company building a commercial maglev] plans to open its domestic maglev line starting with a 180-mile segment between Tokyo and Nagoya. It is not planning any 40-mile stub."
An Acela train even on Amtrak's under-maintained trackage makes the trip in 25-30 minutes; the Maglev would cut that to 15 minutes. Is that enough to justify the huge ticket price that the initial cost of maglev would require? Don't forget, Hogan is envisioning a "public private partnership" to build the maglev, meaning the backers will want to see a 10-15 percent investment. As the Brookings Institution says of this method (touted also by Donald Trump), "there is no free lunch." Ticket prices will not be anywhere near as low as the $8 cost of a MARC ride from city to city.
The search for new right of way not only offers opportunities for commercial exploitation but scares the bejeesus out of residential communities along the proposed paths.
Residents along the possible pathways roused with alarm. The Bowie Blade-News reported August 2 that "The potential disruption to homeowners brought 300 people out to a City Council meeting last month during which city officials and residents heard from David Henley, the project director for the Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rails (BWRR) Maglev Project." But the Blade reported October 19 that "Three of the six proposed super conductor magnetic levitation (SCMAGLEV) high-speed train routes between Washington and Baltimore have been cut, including two that would have had impacted Bowie. Officials connected to the proposal made the announcement during an open house on the project attended by hundreds of local residents at Bowie State University Saturday."
A group of Bowie residents formed a grassroots coalition against maglev, period, and in a Change.org petition stated "The Maryland MAGLEV development process has been pushed along with very little notice to residents and very little stakeholder input."
People along the corridor, including many who commute from one of the major urban areas to another, have clamored for years for more attention to the existing network, particularly that of MARC, which proposed a highly functional expansion of its service half a decade ago and got zero response from both Martin O'Malley's and Hogan's administrations, or from the General Assembly.
More recently, longtime transit activist Ben Ross and some fellow activists (many, like him, fighters for the Purple Line) proposed a similar expansion creating "a statewide rail network that would run from Delaware to Southern Maryland to West Virginia while connecting the Baltimore and Washington Metro systems." It would include reviving Baltimore's Red Line, which Hogan defunded. As the Washington Business Journal acidly observed, "Hogan has been a big fan of high-tech rail transit (minus the reluctantly approved Purple Line and Baltimore's canceled Red Line)."
In a WaPo Daily 202 business-section analysis, Kevin DeGood of the Center for American Progress elaborated:
Levy's analysis in Baltimore Brew comes to similar conclusions:
It's clear, too, that any manifestation of these bells-and-whistles versions of intercity transportation would be so costly to build that the average person could never afford them without massive state subsidies underwriting low tickets costs. Maryland does not need to build a system for elite travel.
High-speed trains would work well if Congress really wanted a national rail system of the sort that makes Swiss and other networks a lifeblood of commercial and personal transportation in Europe and parts of Asia. It would require upgrading trackage in the Northeast Corridor - already a profit center for Amtrak and the most popular intercity travel option for Boston-New York-D.C. travelers' to match the rolling stock. Acela trains could go much, much faster over better track.
So the benefits of being the southern anchor of a genuine high-speed intercity rail system could come to Baltimore and Washington in the current right of way. The pitchforks and torches can go back in the garage.
For that matter, if track maintenance and improvement nationwide were taken out of the hands of the freight networks - to whom Amtrak must kowtow for the use of their miserable trackage - the national rail network could approach a viable speed. An Acela train on good track could go coast to coast in 15-18 hours. How many people would prefer today's air travel to an overnight trip to the other coast, early dinner to late breakfast?
Well, yes . . . those are a rail buff's futuristic dreams emerging. But the concrete achievement of a really useful intercity rail system is in reach for Maryland if it defers the maglev and hyperloop dreams in favor of the needs of today's household travelers.