Standing in a onetime firehouse at 6 S. Gay St. downtown, backers of a proposed magnetic-levitation train Monday night drew comparison between the renovated building and what their project could mean for Baltimore.
The building now serves as the headquarters for Northeast Maglev and Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, which are pushing to build a $10 billion line that would operate 300-mph trains connecting Baltimore and Washington D.C. in about 15 minutes. They believe that investment could help turn around the city, much like the old firehouse was brought back to life.
“I think it’s symbolic for us what maglev can do for Baltimore,” Northeast Maglev CEO Wayne Rogers said.
On Monday, the group celebrated the opening of its new headquarters with state and federal politicians, officials from the Japanese Embassy and business leaders from throughout the Northeast. They packed into a room lined with televisions showing footage of the train running in Japan. Speakers sang the praises of the technology.
Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Northeast Maglev advisory board member, said she believes that building the first leg of the maglev line between Baltimore and D.C. is a necessary first step for the overall project.
“You have to get Americans comfortable with the fact that the technology is real,” Whitman said.
James Russ, president of the Maryland Transportation Builders and Materials Association, said he likes the idea of the maglev and said he believes it’s part of the bigger picture in addressing transportation infrastructure needs.
“I would hope [it’s built]. It will take time, like all things,” Russ said.
Former Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, Northeast Maglev Advisory Board chairman, called the project the investment in transportation infrastructure the Northeast corridor sorely needs.
“The current modes of transportation just aren’t going to cut it,” Daschle said.
Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank is also an advisory board member. He called sitting down with the other members a “pinch me” moment. He said he was attracted to the project because of the scope of its ambition.
“I love big. I have a passion. I love blowing people’s minds,” said Plank, who is expected in the next few weeks to unveil a transformative plan of his own to expand his company’s corporate campus into Port Covington.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn told the crowd that the Hogan administration was very interested in the technology. Rahn joined Gov. Larry Hogan in riding a maglev train during a state trade mission to Japan earlier this year. He compared the experience to what it must have felt like to ride a 707 jet aircraft after being used to nothing but prop-propeller planes.
The state has applied for a $28 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration to study the feasibility of building the line.
An undercurrent in the room for much of the night was whether the political system was capable of surmounting the partisan gridlock in Washington to line up behind a major infrastructure investment. The organizers of the Northeast Maglev have carefully stocked their advisory board with moderate political figures from both sides of the aisle — though many of them faded from the spotlight years ago.
They’ve also taken pains to line up business leaders like Plank and Douglas Steenland, former CEO of Northwest Airlines and now chairman of the American International Group, the insurance giant. And they took pains to note that much of the project would be underwritten by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, which has pledged to subsidize $5 billion of the $10 billion estimated price tag for a Baltimore-Washington line.