DC-based freelance writer Andrew Zaleski has written for Wired, The Washington Post Magazine, Backchannel, The Atlantic, Politico Magazine, The Guardian, and many other publications.
Promoters are touting two different multi-billion-dollar high-speed projects between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Is it a fantasy, or a game changer?
In the space of one weird week in October, residents of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore were told that, one day, their commuting needs might be serviced by not one but two wildly ambitious high-speed rail projects.
A private company called Baltimore Washington Rapid-Rail unveiled three potential routes that the firm would like to use to build a magnetic-levitation train line. BWRR is all-in on importing Japan’s superconducting maglev technology to create a 300-mph supertrain that it says could shorten the trip between the two cities to just 15 minutes. The estimated price tag? $10 billion, a bill BWRR says will be covered by private investment—including, possibly, a loan from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.
Also around the same time, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan tweeted out that his administration was also clearing a path for the Boring Company, that tunnel-digging side project of Tesla boss and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk. As early as January, according to a state permit, Musk’s firm could begin digging a 10.3-mile-long tunnel beneath the state-owned portion of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway that runs from the Baltimore city line south to Maryland 175 in Hanover, the first leg of what is the ultimate goal for Musk: digging two, 35-mile-long tunnels between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., into which he could install a hyperloop—the super-ultra-high-speed conveyance that could blast passengers in pressurized capsules traveling in a near-vacuum at more than 600 mph.
The estimated budget for this futuristic mode: Well, no one really knows. The best the Boring Company can do is to say that tunneling can cost $1 billion per mile, and that, in order for hyperloop to be a reality, those costs have to decrease “by a factor of more than 10.”
Either one of the two competing visions for the 40-mile spine of the bustling Northeast Corridor would dramatically reshape commuter options between the two cities, use radically new technology, and cost many billions of dollars. And they also represent what their boosters see as the first step toward a bigger prize: establishing the long-sought New York City-to-D.C. high-speed line. But it’s less clear who would benefit from these schemes, or the role they might play in the larger regional transportation picture.
Also, lest we forget, there’s already a third multi-billion Balto-Wash transportation mega-project in the offing, albeit a more conventional one aimed at drivers. Hogan recently announced his $9 billion initiative to widen and toll-ify Interstate 270, the Capital Beltway, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, three of the state’s most heavily trafficked highways.
Still, the Hogan administration is all for pitting the three massive infrastructure projects against one another, since—for now—none of the three projects require the use of taxpayer-funded state dollars. “There are benefits of one over another, but the best way in my mind that you address competition is you let them slug it out in the free market,” Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn says.
Hyperloop: a tube too far?
There are colossal technological and feasibility hurdles to clear before anyone hops a maglev train or hyperloop. Installing either system requires carving out an entirely new right of way, since they can’t be melded into the existing Amtrak system. Right now, both are eyeing land alongside the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, much of which isn’t owned by the state but rather by the National Park Service. And hyperloop technology is so far away from being a commercial reality that it’s hard to know where to begin, as CityLab’s Laura Bliss has explained.
“Just because some guy like Musk comes along and says he can do something—that has to be proven. It has to be tested and you have to build models and test tracks and you actually have to prove the case,” says Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.
Musk’s Boring Company is keeping its plans close to the vest, not surprisingly, and an interview request was declined. Setting aside for a moment the many technical challenges involved in building a Baltimore-D.C. hyperloop, the idea faces a host of regulatory ones. Either the federal government would have to give the Boring Company the go-ahead, or control of the federally owned portion of land along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway would have to be transferred to the state of Maryland. (Rahn says meetings with Maryland’s congressional delegation and members of the federal Department of the Interior are forthcoming to discuss just that.)
And while Musk seems assured that the federal government is on board the hyperloop express—he tweeted in July that he had received “verbal approval” to tunnel from D.C. to New York—a recent piece in Axios quoting White House advisor Reed Cornish said that Cornish “wasn’t actually offering government approval” for the Boring Company to drill a hole from D.C. to NYC—a project that’s distinct from two other non-hyper subterranean transportation schemes Musk is currently cooking up.
One is a network of private tunnels that would be built underneath Los Angeles, which would move cars (plus bicyclists and pedestrians) on “electric skates” at high speeds to ameliorate L.A.’s highway congestion (or at least help the company’s CEO get to work). And in November, Musk tweeted that his company will compete with other firms to build a tunnel from Chicago O’Hare airport to the city’s downtown. This underground route also won’t be a hyperloop—just a regular loop that uses electric pods to move riders.
Maglev: the floating dream that still hasn’t come true
On the maglev front, the technology is a bit less hypothetical. Japan is currently building a maglev train between Nagoya and Tokyo that is slated to open in 2027, and it’s been running a demonstration line for many years; there are also handful of small commercial maglev lines operating in China and South Korea. Maglev trains are capable of great speeds, but the technology is not without its critics: A pair of researchers in Japan concluded that the floating trains consume four to five times the energy of comparable conventional high-speed bullet trains and dismissed the coming maglev project as “[d]eficit-breeding, energy-wasting, environmentally destructive and technologically unreliable.”
Since 2011, Northeast Maglev, the advocacy group affiliated with BWRR, has been pushing for a maglev connection from D.C. to New York City that would trim travel time to one hour. The first leg would be D.C. to Baltimore, which has the support of Governor Hogan, who became enamored of the technology after riding a maglev demonstration line during a visit to Japan in 2015. BWRR’s project is currently in the middle of an environmental impact study—paid for by a $28 million federal grant—shepherded by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Maryland Department of Transportation. That study that won’t be completed until December 2019 at the earliest.
Supporters of maglev are confident they’d be able to attract riders along what seems to be the most likely route configuration: two north-south routes, one on each side of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. D.C.’s Union Station and Baltimore’s Penn Station are both out as endpoints, so two new stations would also need to be sited. (MDOT is working with the FRA to eliminate from contention another maglev alignment option, one that would run adjacent to the existing Amtrak line connecting D.C. and Baltimore.)
Wayne Rogers, BWRR CEO, says the ticket cost along the D.C. to Baltimore leg will probably be “something along the lines of an Amtrak line.” He’s aware his project is now vying for space and attention with Elon Musk, but he insists that BWRR’s maglev is the idea furthest along.
Current train traffic along the Northeast Corridor suggests that riders are indeed willing to pay premium prices to hop aboard a faster train. Per Amtrak’s audited financial reports, the Acela line, which is currently the closest thing that the U.S. has to true high-speed rail, is profitable: It made $293.6 million in FY 2016, which speaks to why Amtrak is now embarked upon a $2.4 billion infrastructure upgrade along the Northeast Corridor. But the Acela is hobbled by the crowded rails it must share with regular Northeast Regional trains, MARC commuter trains, and freight trains. Acela trains are capable of 150 mph, but they average closer to 80. “It’s like putting a Ferrari on the Beltway in rush hour,” says Rogers.
Kunz, whose U.S. High Speed Rail Association is working toward assembling a national network of true high-speed lines, is less convinced that maglev is the way to go in Maryland. California’s under-construction high-speed line, for example, is slated to use conventional electric-powered locomotives with steel wheels, not magnetic levitation. Maglev proposals in the mid-Atlantic go all the way back to the 1990s, and a line to connect Orlando International Airport with the Orange County Convention Center in Florida fell through this summer after the project agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation expired. “Look at the history of these kinds of projects,” Kunz says. “There’s not a single maglev system built [in the U.S.].”
If we build it, who will ride?
The FRA is now scrutinizing a BWRR-submitted maglev ridership study designed to help determine who would actually pay extra for a shorter trip between the two cities. In a call with CityLab, an FRA spokesperson says that there remains “a significant heavy lift” to prove not only that demand exists for a maglev train, but also that enough riders from MARC, Acela, and other regional rail lines—as well as current vehicle commuters—would choose maglev over current modes of transportation.
Rogers says BWRR isn’t trying to pull customers from Amtrak: He’s aiming at drivers. “I think we’re going to get a lot of people who would prefer to sit on the train for 8 to 10 minutes than sit in their car,” he says.
Cato Institute senior fellow Randal O’Toole, a maglev skeptic and longtime foe of U.S. high-speed rail, isn’t so sure that’s true. “The fundamental problem is we have this mode of transportation that takes us door to door. It’s called cars,” he says. “It’s really hard to compete with that.”
O’Toole also doubts maglev can be built without an infusion of public money. Maryland Transportation Secretary Rahn insists that the state won’t be putting up any of the funding, and Rogers says BWRR is assembling a pool of financing right now: some from Japan, which is eager to export its maglev expertise, and some from the private sector. Construction estimates for the maglev line may begin at $10 billion, but that number doesn’t take into account the land acquisition costs, as the routes are still being decided. And it would quickly balloon further if major tunneling is necessary. (The FRA said it’s “quietly pushing for more tunneling,” since tunneling would make the project more compatible with the National Environmental Policy Act.)
You don’t have to be a transit foe to be unconvinced that these sci-fi-esque supertrains are feasible, especially given the region’s recent record with far-less-ambitious rail projects. The $2.9 billion Red Line, a 14-mile east-west light rail project in Baltimore, was canceled by the Hogan administration in 2015, and the troubled Purple Line, a $2.4 billion light rail project to connect dense D.C. suburbs, is just now entering construction after federal judges weighed whether a drop in Metro ridership should determine whether Maryland could even build a new public transit line. Local critics like Baltimore architect and urban designer Klaus Philipsen argue that the state chooses to cheerlead impractical, privately funded projects like maglev and hyperloop to distract from the very real transportation woes that transit riders on less glamorous modes are facing. Others concur that, for inter-city commuters and travelers, simply improving existing MARC and Amtrak offerings would be vastly more cost-effective.
But BWRR’s Rogers continues to assemble his superconducting coalition of the willing. Recently, the proposed maglev won the support of the North American Building Trades Unions and the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland. Besides, he says, maglev is about much more than just shaving off a few minutes of commuting time.
“It’s not really a train I’m talking about. We’re dealing with the extreme cost of doing nothing,” says Rogers. “We’re 50 years behind on taking action on infrastructure. I think we have the best and most actionable idea.”
But, as MDOT’s Rahn notes, this is still anybody’s race to win—or lose.
“We’ll let the marketplace determine who the winner is. It’s whoever gets there first,” he says. “They all go back to a single point, which is: Maryland has a big congestion problem, and we are not going to significantly impact that unless we do big things.”