Image by Maryland MTA.

A private company and the Maryland MTA have been studying how to build a maglev line between DC and Baltimore. They're now out with a scoping report and an interactive map of potential alignments. The maps are a cool opportunity to dream about a fast train from DC to Baltimore and beyond, though there are still many, many questions about whether this is feasible.

The company, called Northeast Maglev, was formed to promote the idea of a maglev (“magnetic levitation”) train from DC to New York. The federal government provided some money, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan supported, a study of a “starter line” between DC and Baltimore. The government of Japan, whose companies would seek to build the line, is supporting it as well.

A train could rocket between the two cities in 15 minutes. Since it's moving so fast, the curves have to be very gentle. That means, in practice, mostly underground; the three alignments still under consideration follow either the Baltimore-Washington Parkway or the existing Amtrak/MARC Penn Line train tracks. All three use a long tunnel from downtown DC under New York Avenue and out to the Beltway, move above ground to about Fort Meade, then go underground again all the way to Baltimore with a stop at BWI airport.

A DC station would go under New York Avenue either around Mt. Vernon Square or NoMa; the project team told WAMU's Martin di Caro that the curves would be too sharp and the space too constrained to reach Union Station. In Baltimore, the station would likely lie near the Inner Harbor.

Faster transit from Baltimore to DC could be great

The idea of better connecting Baltimore and DC is a very worthy one, and potentially the kind of game changer that Baltimore needs and the entire region would benefit from. The city, for most of Maryland's history the state's economic engine, is suffering from high unemployment, high crime, and lots of vacant properties. Washington, on the other hand, has low unemployment but scarce housing.

Why not use some of the beautiful, historic row houses of Baltimore to house people who can't afford beautiful, historic row houses of DC?

And if Baltimore can grow its skilled workforce, employers bringing jobs to Baltimore itself will likely follow.

A high-speed maglev could help with that effort, for sure. However, a lot will depend on a few factors.

Fares: What would this line cost to ride? Are we talking the $54 Acela fare from Baltimore to Washington, or the $18 Amtrak Regional advance purchase fare, or the $8 MARC fare, or the $216 monthly MARC pass which comes out to $4.90-$5.40 each way if you take 20-220 round trips a month? Is it more like commuter rail or Amtrak?

That matters because while there is a need for occasional travel at Amtrak-type prices (or airline shuttle type prices) between DC and Baltimore, and to and from BWI, the real game changer for Baltimore would be to serve commuters.

A clear potential benefit of a maglev would be to get people between BWI airport and both DC and Baltimore office districts. That is nice, but the numbers of commuters in any region dwarf the numbers of airport passengers. It's common for transit projects (like the Metro Silver Line) to talk about airport connectivity and people get very excited, but it's a small share of potential riders.

If the line doesn't work for commuters, it's not the end of the world; especially if the line continued to New York, it'd be useful to have a super-fast train. But such a thing is not going to be the salvation of Baltimore that way.

MARC: There is a transportation solution for commuting now, on the two MARC lines between DC and Baltimore (MARC Penn and Camden lines). The Penn Line stops in West Baltimore, where there are lots and lots of cheap houses.

Unfortunately, there are few MARC trains, partly due to Maryland's meager funding and partly because Amtrak and freight trains also use those tracks. The state has drawn up plans in the past to expand the Penn Line to four tracks and the Camden Line to three, but the plan was not funded. The old rail tunnels under Baltimore also need rebuilding, a project which would speed up the trains.

2007 (top) and proposed 2035 (top) MARC Penn Line track configuration, from the 2007 MARC Growth and Investment Plan. Image by MTA Maryland.

Yes, the MARC train takes longer, and even Amtrak's Acela takes 30 minutes rather than the promised 15. If the goal were *just* to help people get between Baltimore and DC, then upgrading MARC and making the service more frequent, two-way, all day would go a long way.

Better commuter rail could go hand-in-hand with maglev, but that depends on the funding. If the maglev takes up scarce state funds, or leads elected officials to say “we already built transit between DC and Baltimore, so why should we spend money on more?” that could be a problem.

Transit within Baltimore: Those vacant historic row houses are not in downtown Baltimore where the station would be. So people will have to get to downtown Baltimore. They'll have to use the city's so-so transit system and cope with traffic getting there.

Governor Larry Hogan canceled the Baltimore Red Line, a light rail line that would have connected many neighborhoods from the impoverished west side to the growing areas east of the Inner Harbor and downtown Baltimore, including the likely location of a maglev station, in between.

As above, if maglev doesn't eat up all the politically feasible funding for transit but does boost Baltimore-DC transit ridership, perhaps a future governor would be motivated to improve Baltimore transit some more.

What will it cost?

A lot of the above depends on the economics of the project. The project website says the line will cost $10-15 billion. With 70% of the line in a tunnel, up from the initial estimate of 50%, that cost could go much higher.

Japan has offered low-cost loans to jump-start demand for its maglev technology in the US, but there will still have to be a revenue source to cover loan repayment and operating costs. Will fares cover most of it? Will the federal government be motivated to kick in money it wouldn't supply otherwise? (Though Hogan wrongly said the Red Line's tunnel under downtown Baltimore was too expensive. Yet he is at least tentatively supportive of this study, which is going to recommend 10-15 mile tunnels.)

I tend to be skeptical of most arguments that “we shouldn't spend money on this transit project which I like less, because I'd rather the money be spent in this other way.” If you're not the governor or head of the legislature, most likely you aren't making that tradeoff yourself. Rather than money going to the transit you like more, it'll go to something totally different—highways, tax cuts, police, school construction, or other things that you may or may not personally prioritize.

Also, it's easy to be reflexively against any new technology (see reactions to the Georgetown gondola proposal). As one contributor who works for a different government put it, “Being the button-down city full of bureaucratic hurdles that we are, there's a severe shortage of political leaders willing to dream big. I am sure that in the late 1910s, there was someone somewhere who was full of great ideas to streamline horse and buggy production, and totally ignoring the next, better technology.”

On the other hand, history is littered with carcasses of new technologies that didn't pan out, and elected officials can get too excited about ribbon-cuttings while neglecting maintenance on the infrastructure they have. We need a balance.

As the study progresses, issues like funding will start being explored and debated. So far a lot of the rhetoric, especially from privatization aficionado Hogan, is that there will be private funding, maybe federal funding, and low-cost Japanese loans. I'm most skeptical about this part, but let's wait and see.

This is really about the full line

Ultimately, while a high-speed train to Baltimore is not bad, backers' real idea is to get all the way to New York. We could definitely use better transit along that corridor, too. Like Baltimore to DC, there have been plenty of plans for classical high-speed rail which never got funded; that either means we should stop thinking about maglev and do the easier thing, or it means that politically, only a bigger technological leap forward would attract leaders' interest.

Meanwhile, better transportation between Baltimore and DC is worthwhile. It's even worth spending public funds on. And maybe a maglev is even the best way. But Maryland has had good (and cheaper) ideas for improving transportation for a long time. Let's not lose sight of those either. If new transportation can better unite the two cities, and especially if someone else wants to pay, then let's do so, but with a fuller understanding of options, costs, and benefits.

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.