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Magnetic Repulsion

The proposed Baltimore-Washington MagLev project would be a mess for taxpayers.

12:00 AM, Apr 23, 2004 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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THE GIGANTIC BUDGET DEFICIT in Maryland has prompted lawmakers to introduce a host of new taxes. A flush tax has been passed to pay for sewer upgrades and a car registration fee has been imposed to pay for transportation. A better way to fill the state's coffers would have been to eliminate the proposed Baltimore to Washington "magnetic levitation train" project.

Last month, the Maryland General Assembly considered adopting budget language to prevent spending $1 million in federal funds to finalize a study of the project before the federal government awards a $950 million grant to help either Baltimore or Pittsburgh build a MagLev line. So far their Senate counterparts in the Maryland House of Delegates have rejected the prohibition in their version of the budget.

The train would carry passengers between Washington and Baltimore stopping at the airport along the way. The image of a 200 to 300 mph train taking just 18 minutes to hurtle between Baltimore and Washington on a cushion of air is beguiling, but a MagLev train might be more trouble for taxpayers than it would be worth.

Amtrak charges about $28 for a one way ticket between Washington and Baltimore (the trip takes 35 minutes) and the MARC train offers $7 one way tickets (a 55 minute ride) on a less luxurious train. The MagLev would cost $48.

How many people would pay that? The Maryland Transportation Authority estimates between 30,000 and 33,000 people per day. To determine these figures MTA photographed cars traveling on I-95 between Baltimore and Washington. They then surveyed drivers living within a few miles of Baltimore's Camden Station and Washington's Union Station and asked them how much they'd be willing to pay for a super-fast train that would get them out of traffic.

The Baltimore Sun reported last year that the consultants who came up with these numbers "used proven techniques to determine the total number of trips between the two cities, the likelihood those travelers would use the train, and their proximity to the train station."

But the numbers don't add up. According to the 2000 census, only 3,038 people a day commute from Baltimore City to the District of Columbia; only 3,700 more come from Baltimore County and 1,500 from Anne Arundel County. Going the opposite direction, only 830 people commute from D.C. to Baltimore everyday. These numbers include people using all forms of transportation.

So why is there so much traffic on I-95 and the Baltimore Washington Parkway? In the mornings traffic is heavy southbound and in the evening rush hour it's heavy northbound because people are traveling to jobs in suburban Maryland--in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties--just outside the District. Since the 1950s the country has been suburbanizing--so much so that only 10 percent of the nation's jobs are in downtown areas. And jobs in the suburbs are spread too thin to be serviced by rail transit.

Transportation expert Wendell Cox sees another reason to doubt the MagLev estimates. He says the consultants for MTA are not describing the actual trip. Someone who lives in Homeland, Guilford, or Roland Park (three upscale Baltimore neighborhoods, each about three or four miles from downtown) would have to drive through traffic to the station, park, go through security (Amtrak has implemented random bag searches in New York and a high speed train that crosses state lines would almost definitely have airport-like security), take the MagLev to Union Station and then get on the Metro or take a taxi to their final destination. In other words, an 18 minute commute could easily become an hour and fifteen minutes. Cox says he'd be surprised if the MagLev got 5,000 riders a day.

It wouldn't be the first high speed train with disappointing ridership results. Original estimates for the London-to-Paris Eurostar projected 15 million riders yearly. In 2001 only 9 million riders got on.

Besides the lack of ridership, MagLev supporters face another problem: building costs. Estimates for rail transit projects are usually low-balled and costs often double or triple after they're commissioned. And then there are the maintenance and operating costs, which get taxpayers year after year, no matter how low ridership is. What's clear is that the only people who would benefit from MagLev are the companies and individuals who would reap financial gain from building and operating the system.

Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.