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Maryland Governor gives maglev support

(The Washington Times posted the following article by Tom Ramstack on its website on February 8.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Maryland's bid for the nation's first segment of an intercity magnetically levitated train is in jeopardy as state legislators grope for a way to fund it.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says he still wants the $4.4 billion magnetically levitated, or maglev, train system between Washington and Baltimore, but only if a reliable funding source can be found.

"The bottom line is yes, if the state can afford it," said Shareese DeLeaver, Mr. Ehrlich's spokeswoman. "A lot of that would depend on the passage of legislation."

Mr. Ehrlich is pinning some hope for a maglev system on slot-machine gambling. Licensing fees and sales on slot machines are expected to generate $395 million in state revenue in the first year.

In addition to passing legislation on slots, the General Assembly would have to be willing to spend more of the state budget on maglev, Miss DeLeaver said.

"The fact is the state is broke," she said. "This is an administration that has inherited a $1.8 billion deficit."

The 40-mile system would extend between Union Station in Washington and Camden Yards in Baltimore, with a stop at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Business leaders say the construction parallel to current Amtrak track would create more than 20,000 jobs and give a boost to the Baltimore and Washington economies.

A state task force is scheduled to deliver a feasibility report to Mr. Ehrlich by Feb. 26.

"It builds a fairly credible case for going forward with this," said Phyllis Wilkins, executive director of the task force, called Maglev Maryland.

The report evaluates ridership, costs, revenue and administration. It also recommends creation of an agency to oversee the maglev system, which would be jointly administered by officials from Maryland and the District.

Miss Wilkins dismisses maglev critics as trivial. "There are always going to be some people against trying to do anything new," she said.

Opponents question whether the convenience of a 17.5-minute maglev trip between Washington and Baltimore is worth $4.4 billion of taxpayer money.

The same trip on Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) trains typically takes more than one hour. Amtrak trains take about 35 to 45 minutes.

Eventually, the U.S. Department of Transportation hopes to expand the maglev line to run from Boston to Atlanta. Similar systems could be built along other regional corridors.

Maglev test trains have been clocked at 320 mph. The maglev system in Maryland would operate up to 240 mph.

"The convergence of excessive highway congestion, unacceptable pollution levels, and a national overreliance on foreign oil is a compelling set of circumstances for America to finally pursue this safe, high-speed and low-maintenance mode of transportation," said Richard Cochran, director of the U.S. Maglev Coalition, an advocacy organization for maglev that announced its formation this week.

Maglev works by using the natural repulsion of magnetic poles to lift a train above the tracks on a cushion of air. One electromagnet in the bottom of a train and the other in the tracks repel each other. With no friction to slow them down, the trains can reach high velocities as electromagnetic pulses along the tracks propel them.

Competition for the maglev line has narrowed to the Baltimore-Washington area or the Pittsburgh area. The winner would qualify for the first $950 million installment of federal funds.

A final choice was expected in the spring but now is subject to federal budget decisions.

"It's kind of up in the air right now," said Warren Flatau, Federal Railroad Administration spokesman.

The Baltimore-Washington area's strategic location in the middle of the planned line along the Eastern Seaboard makes it a strong contender.

However, the winning applicant must demonstrate it has local support.

In Maryland's case, local support means the state must contribute $500 million in matching funds.

However, legislators who sent Mr. Ehrlich a letter of opposition to the project last month say the state should invest in other priorities.

They also questioned ridership projections. About 24,000 riders a day pay $10 to ride MARC trains between Washington and Baltimore. The state's ridership study said about 33,000 people a day would pay $60 for a ticket on the maglev train.

"I think what we need to do is concentrate on what we have before we create another system," said Sen. James DeGrange, Anne Arundel County Democrat. He is a co-author of the letter to Mr. Ehrlich and a member of the Maglev Maryland task force.

In addition, maglev was intended as an inducement in the area's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. But New York was chosen as the U.S. site.

"Which begs the question, why are we still pursuing a system that will not present a value to our state and the immediate area it would serve?" the letter said.

Monday, February 10, 2003

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