For environmentalists tossing and turning at night in despair over the fate of their climate-ravaged planet, the prospect of a sleek, high-tech, clean-energy train that could zip along the Northeast Corridor at breathtaking speeds should be a dream come true.
Instead, developers of a futuristic maglev (magnetic levitation) train that will someday take passengers from Washington to New York in one hour are encountering stiff resistance from green activists and Democratic lawmakers, whom they probably thought would be their biggest supporters. After all, the maglev train, which is projected to reach a top speed of 311 mph, would cut dreaded greenhouse-gas emissions, taking about 16 million car trips off the road by 2045, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Maglev trains already operate in Japan and China. So why not here?
Alas, all that glitters is not green. Right now, the project is taking the long slog through the federal permitting process. If all goes as planned – which never happens in today’s infrastructure projects – the first trains will be running between Washington and Baltimore in 2030. If Audubon Maryland-D.C., a subsidiary of the National Audubon Society, gets its way, however, the maglev will never get off the ground. In a mass email, it called on its members to oppose the project.
“It’s noteworthy that this is not public transportation,” the email said (Washington Post, April 4). “There are no stops between Baltimore and Washington and the train would cater to only the city’s most wealthy residents.”
What’s more, the 40-mile stretch between Washington and Baltimore would take the train and its supporting infrastructure over public land managed by a slew of federal agencies, including the National Park Service, NASA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Secret Service, the National Security Administration (NSA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Fort Meade. The train’s route will either be just to the east or just to the west of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, where, in either case, it will go through woods and wetlands, cross a river, and traverse a national wildlife research refuge. None of these entities is eager to sacrifice a square foot of their land for the sake of a train, and they have powerful political allies prepared to go to bat for them.
The project’s developers – Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail and Northeast Maglev – could have selected a less environmentally disruptive path and opted to put the project underground. But that would cost far more than the estimated $13.8 billion – $16.8 billion price tag., a figure that is probably low anyway, given the significant cost overruns common for such projects. Nevertheless, the developers’ decision to build parts of the rail line aboveground is seen as greed by the project’s critics.
“They chose to come aboveground and to spend most of the time aboveground in Prince George’s County on a purely economic basis, because it was less costly than building it underground,” Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s) told the Washington Post. “I have serious concerns and reservations. It’s purely for profit motive.”
Conservationists are also up in arms over what the maglev would do to the environment.
“This is an Earth-built landscape millions of years in the making,” Sam Droege, a wildlife biologist who has spent over two decades conducting research in the area, told the Post. “When you crush, excavate, and finally smother this land with fill and concrete, you destroy forever an entire interlocked, respiring, and breathing community, the home for thousands of organisms living deep in the soil up to the treetops. You don’t get it back.”
Mr. Droege has a point, of course. But the same is true for other green infrastructure projects, from subways to light rail and conventional bullet trains., not to mention bird-killing wind turbines and toxic chemical-laden solar arrays. If a project as green as the maglev is encountering resistance in the bastion of green politics that is the Greater Washington, D.C. Area, what does it say about the prospects for similar schemes elsewhere?