The Washington Post Sunday
Maryland’s proposed maglev train would hurt minority communities with no benefit
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.