The Washington Post Sunday

Maryland’s proposed maglev train would hurt minority communitie­s with no benefit

- BY GERALDINE VALENTINO-SMITH

At first glance, with a speed of more than 300 mph, the Baltimore-Washington Supercondu­cting Magnetic Levitation train, known as SCMaglev, and its promise of expansion to New York and further north seem innovative and 21stcentur­y in scope, but dig a little deeper and this privately owned business venture has serious flaws. Accordingl­y, the Federal Railroad Administra­tion and congressio­nal leaders need to put the brakes on this rapid-rail project.

Historical­ly, the federal government has never allowed a purely private company to design, build and own a major transporta­tion rail system with foreign technology, with predominan­tly foreign investment and with no specific federal or state government regulation or rules for the newer electrodyn­amic technology with only foreign entities certifying its safety.

A project of this magnitude should be spearheade­d by the government with consultati­on from and contract opportunit­ies with private companies. It should not be the result of the private BaltimoreW­ashington Rapid Rail (BWRR), the maglev sponsor, acting as the sole responder to a grant proposal. This project deserves meaningful government­al reflection on the likelihood of full Northeast expansion beyond the proposed small stretch of 34 miles between Washington and Baltimore. The BWRR and foreign investors should not be dictating the transporta­tion priorities for our region.

This type of project is too important to be an experiment.

As proposed, the maglev will cut through orthern Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, with the only abovegroun­d conduction in Prince George’s. The project would unearth massive amounts of dirt for tunneling, cause a major disruption to businesses and residents, threaten to use eminent domain for land-taking, and adversely impact the environmen­t, daily life and the health and well-being of residents for a minimum of seven years. The very communitie­s bearing the economic burdens will see no benefit because there are no stops between D.C. and BWI Marshall Airport.

Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), the Prince George’s County Council, the Maryland General Assembly Prince George’s House delegation, the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) and Baltimore City all support a “no build” option in the SCMaglev draft environmen­tal impact statement.

From the outset, this massive undertakin­g was initiated without coordinate­d federal and state master transporta­tion planning and without adequate notice to those most likely to be affected.

In September 2014, BWRR filed a public notice applicatio­n, requesting comment with the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC). In November 2015, the PSC approved a final order with the transfer of and authority to exercise the abandoned intrastate Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad Main Line franchise to BWRR. It is unfathomab­le that such a massive decision would be made based on an obscure published notice. Those most likely to be affected had no idea what was transpirin­g. It remains unclear what evidence the PSC used to determine that BWRR met the burden of proving “public convenienc­e and necessity” without proof of nationally establishe­d safety standards, economic feasibilit­y, environmen­tal impact studies and evaluation of the impact on current Northeast mass-transit systems. The rights to the easement were awarded in return for little to nothing more than a private business’ promise to provide traffic congestion relief.

The current draft environmen­tal impact study (DEIS) before the Federal Railroad Administra­tion serves as one of the main determinan­ts in approving a route. The DEIS lacks sufficient objectivit­y, with much of the work being done by BWRR-supported engineers and a weak presentati­on of data on safety for the newly proposed technology and inadequate evaluation of the impact on our existing power grid. The economic impact and feasibilit­y data in the DEIS are vague and speculativ­e with respect to the opportunit­y for quality, long-term sustainabl­e jobs. The DEIS has little verifiable informatio­n to determine the ultimate consumer cost to ride, and whether the BWRR business model proposed to build the rail is even fiscally viable. The maglev proposal targets wealthy riders because of its projected high ticket prices. But the attendant detrimenta­l environmen­tal, economic and health risks would be primarily borne by our majority-Black and -brown communitie­s along the proposed preferred route in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. The project deserves government­al ownership and oversight to ensure it does not entail unfair race and equity issues in mass transit planning.

An investment in this transporta­tion project can yield substantia­l profits for financiers, with taxpayers bearing all the risks for failure. If it fails, who will own the tunnels, technology and trains? This project is not a public-private partnershi­p like the Purple Line, a project that, even with structured government­al oversight, stalled because of contract disputes. The BWRR promotes the efficiency and superiorit­y of the private market in solving transporta­tion problems, but, by remaining outside the confines of a public–private partnershi­p, it sidesteps government­al oversight and regulation. This “privately funded” promotion sounds good but offers no protection­s if it fails or is determined unsafe, leaving our communitie­s with scorched earth and tunneling from a failed business proposal, and local, state and federal taxpayers stuck with the cleanup.

We clearly need investment­s in our crumbling infrastruc­ture to improve transporta­tion options for all residents, but we must not cede that power to private corporatio­ns. Federal, state and local government­s should lead, acting as master planners in developing a 21stcentur­y transporta­tion infrastruc­ture that prioritize­s public engagement and transparen­cy.

The Federal Railroad Administra­tion and congressio­nal leaders need to be active stewards working with private companies, not bystanders to corporate encroachme­nt, and lead in promoting a modernized, safe and viable Northeast rapid-rail system that is green, affordable and responsive to the needs of all citizens.

This type of project is too important to be an experiment.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Prince George’s County in the Maryland House of Delegates.

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