MD: Backers of High-Speed 'Maglev' Train to Washington Claim $5B in Funding

Sept. 04--An investor group hoping to build a high-speed train capable of cutting the travel time between Baltimore and Washington to 15 minutes says in a filing to state regulators that it has lined up more than $5 billion in financial backing.

The commitment is from the Japanese government, which hopes to showcase the technology behind superconducting magnetic levitation or "maglev" trains to an American audience, the company behind the proposal wrote to the Maryland Public Service Commission on Wednesday.

Such trains are capable of extreme speeds, thanks to their frictionless, magnetically-controlled motion above their tracks. The technology has been approved in Japan and is to be rolled out next month on an initial stretch of track that planners hope will eventually connect Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

In addition to the $5 billion commitment from the public Japan Bank for International Cooperation, the private Central Japan Railway Co. has agreed to waive any licensing fees for use of its maglev technology, wrote attorneys for the Annapolis-based Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail LLC.

The details were included in Rapid Rail's filing Wednesday asking Maryland regulators for the old state franchise rights of the former Washington Baltimore & Annapolis Electric Railroad, a once-busy interurban electric rail car system that linked the three cities in the early 20th century.

"In a back-to-the-future type way, you see that there was already a Baltimore-Washington service that previously existed ... sort of sitting on the shelf waiting for people to pull it off and dust it off, for us to get back to providing what they had in 1935," said Wayne Rogers, a major shareholder in Rapid Rail and chairman and CEO of The Northeast Maglev, a separate Washington-based company backing the project.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland PSC, which regulates "common carriers" in the state, including passenger rail providers, confirmed receipt of the application. The agency will open a case on the application, accept comments from staff and others, and conduct a hearing on whether granting Rapid Rail's request "is consistent with the public convenience and necessity," said Regina L. Davis.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office welcomed the new details about maglev.

"Because Baltimore provides millennials and empty-nesters with affordable city living, this speedy mode of transportation will provide residents who work in D.C. with a convenient alternative, while also giving tourists throughout the country who visit our nation's capital easier access to enjoy all of the attractions Baltimore has to offer," said Caron Brace, a spokeswoman for the mayor. "Ultimately, this would help the local economy, as well as help to grow the city. It could be a game-changer for Baltimore."

While maglev is a tantalizing technology for high-speed transportation, there are many barriers to its implementation, including concerns over the difficulty of assembling a route, its effect on neighbors and its sheer cost.

The Japanese financing has been hinted at for nearly a year. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talked up the project to the Obama administration last year. Northeast Maglev said it could count on financing from a Japanese government bank, citing that support as the key difference between its proposal and others in the past that fizzled out with little outside investment and a lack of federal will to assist.

Still, Northeast Maglev did not disclose details about the Japanese commitment until now.

The total cost of the Baltimore-to-Washington leg of the project is unknown and would depend largely on the final route of the mostly underground track, Rogers said, but it would cost at least $10 billion.

Some critics say even that price tag is too low to make maglev a reality.

"Unless someone has all the cash to build the whole system all in one go, or at least in rapid phasing, the whole thing doesn't make sense," said Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, which supports more conventional high-speed rail systems. "Who is going to come up with the other $5 billion, or probably $10 billion more?"

Kunz said some estimates put maglev costs at five times those of high-speed rail systems that now can reach speeds of 220 mph -- like those currently being built in California.

The investment needed to build a maglev line between Washington and New York, the only connection that would make sense for the system, is so huge that it will never get built, Kunz said. He predicted that if the Baltimore to Washington stretch gets built, it will end up like other short-track maglev experiments around the world.

"If this does get built, it's going to end up looking just like the Chinese maglev, which is almost a joke. People ride it as a novelty, but not for transportation," he said. "I would really be [angry] if our government forked over $5 billion for this little system to Baltimore" when it could move more people farther distances with the same amount in California.

Rogers said his hope is that the promised investment from the Japanese will spur interest among more investors, eventually allowing the extension of the line from Baltimore to New York.

The Japanese hope the same, and that U.S. commitment to the technology along its busy Northeast Corridor will be copied around the world -- creating a new export market for Japan's rail industry.

Locally, securing the transfer of the old Washington Baltimore & Annapolis franchise would be the first step in getting the project rolling prior to additional needed approvals from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and other federal entities, Rogers said. Without the transfer, the company would have to ask the General Assembly to approve a new franchise agreement, a process that could become steeped in politics.

The old railroad was quick for its time, approaching speeds of 70 mph through what was then open countryside -- not far below the 84 mph average speed of Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express trains. The maglev proposal would rocket passengers at speeds approaching 311 mph.

Attorneys for the company argued in the PSC filing that the WBA franchise was abandoned by the railroad prior to foreclosure proceedings ahead of its ultimate demise in 1935 because of shrinking ridership. They say the franchise was never sold, and therefore remains in existence and can be transferred by the commission if regulators deem the action "consistent with the public convenience and necessity."

The new rail line would not use the railroad's old right of way, which has largely been lost or turned into multi-use trails, Rogers said, just its right to operate a passenger service through the area.

The maglev train would not serve Annapolis, like the WBA, but would stop at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and give airline passengers rapid commutes into Baltimore and Washington along a system of three underground stations.

"That would be totally transformational," Rogers said of having an underground station within the airport. "It would be faster to get to Washington or Baltimore than it would be to get out of the parking lot."

Rogers said the high-speed service would be "complementary" to existing MARC and Amtrak services, not a replacement, and could begin operations within 10 years if it can get through permitting, design and environmental hurdles, and raise the remaining capital needed.

It would rely on federal funding, but not state funding, Rogers said.

According to an analysis by the Louis Berger Group that was funded by the Abell Foundation and cited by the company in its PSC filing, the line would offer a return on the investment -- creating tens of thousands of jobs in the Baltimore region, millions of dollars in state and local government taxes, and billions in gross regional product.

The transfer of the old WBA franchise would be appropriate, Rogers said, because the project would drive public transit enthusiasm in the Baltimore-Washington region in the same way the Washington Baltimore & Annapolis line did when it opened in 1908, promising local residents quick, reliable rail trips between the two cities for the first time.

"We're obviously only doing this every 100 years," he said, "so let's try to do it right this time so we can use it for the next 100 years."

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul M. McCardell contributed to this article.

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