Maryland Governor Larry Hogan campaigned on cutting costs. Since taking office, however, he’s expressed interest in throwing big money at numerous transportation programs — just not the transit lines that actually work and which businesses and residents want. His latest big spending idea: A $10 billion maglev between DC and Baltimore.

Shanghai’s maglev. Photo by Rob Faulkner on Flickr.

Hogan is in Japan right now on a trade mission, and according to WAMU’s Martin di Caro, has agreed to work with Japan and seek federal funds for a study of what it’d take to build a maglev line here at home.

The Federal Railroad Administration has $27.8 million available for a maglev study, but Maryland is the only state in the nation that’s interested in seeking the money. Japan is offering $5 billion in loans to help make the line happen, but that money would still have to be paid back.

The maglev line could run over 300 miles per hour and, di Caro reports, possibly go from DC to Baltimore in 15 minutes (though time estimates for transportation facilities often are rosier, before the gritty details come in).

However, to run that fast, the tracks would have to be very straight. There’s no place to put very straight tracks right through the mostly-suburban area in between; instead, maglev supporters expect the line to be mostly in a tunnel. According to contributor and maglev supporter Peter Dovak, Japan’s maglev (which is different from its well-known “Shinkansen” high-speed trains) will run in a tunnel for 85% of its length.

That makes it very expensive.

If money is no object, hey, knock yourself out

We shouldn’t necessarily sneer at spending big bucks on transit. It’s not like the United States doesn’t spend far more money on all kinds of things — liberals might point to military hardware, while conservatives might point to aid to the poor.

But it’s hard to make the case that maglev is a better investment than the raft of projects already in the pipeline.

The obvious big ones are the Purple Line and Baltimore Red Line, which Hogan has said are “too expensive.” His administration has dismissed studies that purport to show big economic benefits from building the Purple Line, instead focusing entirely on the cost.

But you can’t focus on the cost of the Purple Line and not the cost of a maglev. This graph shows the amount Maryland, counties, and the private sector would all have to pay to build the Purple Line, not counting federal money already pledged and money already spent. On the right is the expected maglev cost.

In a press release, the Action Committee for Transit noted that Governor Hogan has still not been willing to tour the Purple Line route with local leaders. Meanwhile, he want to Japan, rode their maglev, and said, “seeing is believing.”

There are other, clear priorities

Besides the Purple and Red Lines, there are plenty of ways to spend less money that have immediate, clear benefit. Di Caro points to additional 7000 series railcars that could expand Metro trains to eight cars and add capacity.

There’s also the MARC train, which has grown ridership by 3.5% per year over the last 15 years even though service remains infrequent. MARC could be so much more — an all-day, two-way, frequent railroad that connects Baltimore, DC, Frederick, Aberdeen, BWI, and many places in between, and even goes to Crystal City and Alexandria to get Marylanders to federal jobs there.

Maryland has a long-term plan to grow MARC with more tracks (so trains don’t get stuck behind freight trains), more trains, more service, more parking, new stations, and much more. It’s worth funding that.

Build this first, Hogan. Image by Peter Dovak and David Alpert.

Between DC and New York, Amtrak needs to put in computerized train control (to avoid more crashes like the recent one), repair its infrastructure, and speed up trains. In Maryland, the B&P tunnels in Baltimore need to be replaced, and so do the bridges over the Susquehanna, Bush, and Gunpowder Rivers. The catenary wires need replacement and upgrades.

Amtrak trains are full and expensive, but remain a much more dependable way to travel between Northeast Corridor cities than cars or intercity buses, all of which get stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike (recent widening didn’t include any bus or HOV lanes, for instance).

Amtrak could speed up its Acela trains from 135 to 160 mph with catenary and signal upgrades, saving a lot of time.

Think big, but not only big

Even with all this, if Governor Hogan were eager to invest in these projects and also wanted to study maglev, fine. Let’s think about exciting future possibilities. Daniel Burnham did so famously say, “make no little plans.” He meant, make big plans. He didn’t mean, make big plans and then refuse to fund all of the other little plans too.

Hogan wants to build roads. But the road system grew, and still grows, by incremental new projects that add capacity or missing links in the network. Hogan would be laughed out of the room if he proposed cutting all road maintenance and canceling every small, local road expansion, and instead pouring all of the state’s money into a new car tunnel from Cumberland to Annapolis which has no exits in between.

(That’s more like former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s Route 460, a truck highway that would have paralleled a non-congested existing highway. Virginia canceled the project amid widespread ridicule and ended up wasting $256 million, getting nothing.)

If Hogan announces he wants to build the Purple and Red Lines, invest in the MARC plan and Maryland’s share of Amtrak upgrades, and buy more railcars for WMATA, I don’t really have a problem with also looking at maglev. But if he cancels one of the light rail lines which already have federal money, big business support, widespread resident support, and private companies ready and waiting to bid; if his administration pleads poverty on funding new railcars for WMATA… then he has absolutely no business talking up a totally-new $10 billion project.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.