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Maglev talks resume after 2-year hiatus

(The following article by Rich Cholodofsky was posted on the Pittsburgh Tribune Review website on September 19.)

PITTSBURGH -- Supporters contend a proposal to build a magnetic levitation high-speed train between Pittsburgh International Airport and Greensburg is on track.
Officials plan to end a two-year hibernation of the $3.4 billion project next month and conduct public hearings designed to elicit comments.

But renewed efforts to accelerate the project comes on the heels of a decision by Congress and President Bush to strip nearly $1 billion of construction money for maglev from the federal budget.

"Right now there is no construction money, but it doesn't mean it can't happen ever," said Judi McNeil, spokesman for the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

The Port Authority has completed its draft environmental impact study of maglev and plans for that document to be released to the public in October. Elected officials from the region will convene Sept. 30 in Pittsburgh to get an early look at the document and receive an updated timetable of the project.

The public will then be asked to deliver comments about the project at four public hearings tentatively scheduled to begin in November.

"This process has been moving forward. It's really an involved process," said Fred Gurney, president of Maglev Pennsylvania.

Gurney said the proposed route included in the draft study to be unveiled next month is identical to what was last pitched in 2003.

The proposed route would take high-speed trains traveling more than 240 mph from Pittsburgh International Airport, through towns on the western Ohio River bank to McKees Rocks and on to Station Square.

From Pittsburgh's South Side, the proposed route has maglev crossing the Monongahela River near the Liberty Bridge to a station at Mellon Arena. The route is to veer north toward the Allegheny River and run through Lawrenceville, Highland Park, Verona, Oakmont, and on to Plum and Penn Hills before reaching a station in the Garden City section of Monroeville.

The proposal then calls for maglev to leave Monroeville via Route 48 into Trafford, where it would follow close to Route 130 in Penn Township to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and run near Route 30 in North Huntingdon and finally into Hempfield Township. The last station on the 54-mile route would be where Route 136 intersects with the Amos K. Hutchinson Bypass (Toll Route 66), west of Hempfield's Fort Allen section.

Officials first pitched a maglev route that linked Pittsburgh International Airport, downtown Pittsburgh and Greensburg. Early estimates called for maglev to be in operation by 2008, with a final link between Monroeville and Greensburg to be in place by 2011.

McNeil said that, with the release of the draft environment study, the public will have two months to comment on the proposed plan before it is submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration for final review.

Gurney said the public hearings and final approval from the Federal Rail Administration could take an additional two years to complete. Final design work on the proposed maglev route would take about another two years before construction could begin.

At that point, the maglev project's future becomes unclear because of the elimination of construction money and the presence of yet another suitor for additional federal funds.
In the latest transportation funding package, Congress authorized spending up to $45 million over the next four years for early study and planning work for one specified project in Nevada that runs from Las Vegas to near the California state line.

Congress also set aside $45 million for an unspecified maglev project "east of the Mississippi River."

The previous transportation bill, approved in 1997, specifically authorized spending up to $950 million in federal funds for a maglev project chosen by the Federal Railroad Administration, in addition to grants for study and planning work.

That construction money is now gone, according Aaron Saunders, spokesman for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Mark Yachmetz, associate administrator for development with the Federal Railroad Administration, said research is under way to determine the exact status of the maglev project.

"Our department has not completed its analysis," Yachmetz said.

FRA officials said any decision to spend additional money for maglev construction would have to be approved by Congress through a new legislative appropriation.

Gurney said the loss of construction funds should have no immediate effect on the state's efforts to build the high-speed rail line because construction is at least four years away, when the most recent transportation bill is to expire.

"We need to get the language in there (for construction money), but it doesn't change any uncertainty. We have a long way to go before we can put a spade in the ground," Gurney said.

Over the last eight years, the FRA has whittled a list of 11 applications seeking the maglev funding down to two -- the Pittsburgh-area project and a proposed line linking Baltimore and Washington DC.

The Baltimore-Washington project, thought to be derailed last year, has been restarted and is again competing for the $45 million federal funds included in the latest federal transportation appropriations, McNeil said.

Since 1999, Maglev Pennsylvania has received about $19.5 million in federal funding to pay for various startup costs and impact studies.

To date, the federal government has paid out about $64 million towards maglev projects across the country.The Pittsburgh project has received the most federal funding of any other proposed maglev system in the United States, according to FRA officials.

The federal government had hoped to award the construction money to one project two summers ago, but work has since stalled.

Gurney nevertheless said he is optimistic about the project's future.

"We're pretty comfortable with the way the Federal Railroad Administration will proceed. We've worked ourselves into a good position. There might be more projects out there now, but that brings more interest. But there is a possibility that more projects could surface," Gurney said.

Monday, September 19, 2005

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