The scene at Laurel High School could have been described as active on one late October night, during one of five stops on the Maryland Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) tour around the Corridor to promote the promise of — as well as discuss the issues that could be caused by — the proposed $10 billion super conducting magnetic levitation (SC MagLev) train.
As representatives of MDOT interacted with the community, some of its members offered their pointed opposition about the need for the proposed high speed rail system, which can reach speeds of up to 300 miles per hour. It would initially connect Downtown Baltimore and Washington, D.C., with a stop at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport; eventual extensions could connect New York and Philadelphia, and perhaps beyond.
On this night, MDOT representatives were on hand to discuss potential routes for the train: one which would run along the Amtrak/MARC Penn line, and two others that would run along either side of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. That provided ample fodder for the inquisitive community members, who are concerned about the expense of, and even the need for, such a rail line, especially given planned improvements for Amtrak’s Acela service.
It was in August 2016 that Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration reached an agreement with the government of Japan that highlighted progress on the SC Maglev, with Japan committing funds in support of feasibility studies for the project. That infusion came in addition to nearly $28 million in U.S. federal grants that had been secured to complete the necessary environmental and engineering studies.
The new wrinkle to the issue was Hogan’s recent endorsement of entrepreneur Elon Musk’s proposed underground Hyperloop, which would run alongside the B-W Parkway, and how both projects would fit into the transportation game plan.
A Few Concerns
It’s never hard to find opposition to a project of this magnitude, and community activist Dennis Brady, chair of the steering committee for Citizens Against the SC MagLev, was eager to express his feelings. He noted various failed routes with similar projects at overseas locations; he also discussed how they are often heavily subsidized by governments, which can negatively impact the building and maintenance of roads and bridges, due to the limited amount of funding that would be left for other transportation needs; and that it would not alleviate congestion along local roads and arteries.
However, Brady said, most of his and other opposition has to do with the routes, which he feels are inevitably targeted for places where the locals don’t want their maps changed.
“First and foremost, should the MagLev be built,” Brady said, “it needs to avoid communities where it would hurt home values.”
Hurting home values is one thing, but having to knock down a house and plowing through the middle of a farm is another. Under a previous route plan — that has since been scratched — Bowie resident Aviva Nabesky’s Horsepen Hill Farm, which lies along Route 197, would have been bulldozed to make room for the train.
Not in My Farm Yard
Though that nervewracking experience is in the rear view mirror, Nabesky is fighting harder than ever to stop the project, which was evidenced when she represented Citizens Against the SC MagLev at the meeting, handing out signs to anyone who wanted to boost the effort, and maybe even take a few along for strategic placement along the proposed routes.
“I’m also concerned about the financial repercussions,” she said. “What if this system fails and the citizens of Maryland are left holding the bag?”
Part of what’s causing that concern are the early rumblings about costs for riders, as a one-way ticket on the SC MagLev is slated to cost from $50–$75 for the ride from Baltimore to Washington, and is being marketed to what have been termed “elite travelers.”
“How many people are going to be able to afford that?” Nabesky queried, pointing out that Amtrak attracts roughly several million Baltimore-Washington area riders annually and has still had well-known financial issues; as for the MagLev, it has already been said that it would require 10 million riders per year just to break even.
Nabesky also takes issue with the actual time savings the MagLev would offer. “We’re already building out Amtrak,” she said, “and that’s supposed to get passengers from Baltimore to Washington in 26 minutes. The MagLev is supposed to take 15 minutes. Is that extra 11 minutes really worth all of the effort and expense?”
Opposition to the MagLev has also come from other quarters. Just before press time, the Anne Arundel County School Board voted 7-1 to officially oppose the project, due to fears that its construction could lead to various problems, including displacement of some schools that could be in the construction zone. Having to relocate schools would have a major financial impact on the school system, said Board President Julie Hummer.
From MDOT’s standpoint, David Henley, project director for Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail, feels that the state’s effort to get the public to join into the discussion has been productive and will continue to be.
“We’re in an exciting phase,” said Henley of the project, which he estimated would create more than 74,000 jobs in Maryland during construction, and thereafter up to 2,000 annually. “MDOT hopes to announce the recommended alignment by the end of March, then begin the next public comment process” at five locations in the Corridor.
Henley thinks the process has worked well, though he added that there is a segment of the public that feels that it heard about the project and the public meetings “late in the game,” and that the public response to the SC MagLev has been a mix of “curiosity and anger, with some enthusiasm and excitement.”
The MDOT media relations department did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but Sen. Jim Rosapepe did. And his reaction is one of concern about the impact on the local community.
Rosepepe stated that MDOT has “botched this process,” and that he is glad the previously planned WB&A (or Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis) route was scratched; he also hopes that the proposed Amtrak/MARC Penn line will be dropped soon.
And that’s not his only issue; it seems that a few other projects involving the land where the MagLev might go had been discussed before the MagLev became the hotter topic. “There are developments that have already been approved by the Prince George’s County Planning Board along the three routes,” he said, “that are still under discussion that are not on [MDOT’s] maps.”