The announcement of a surprise cutting-edge transportation project in Maryland is leaving a growing list of questions in its wake.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement Friday touted what could be the first leg of entrepreneur Elon Musk’s dream of building a pneumatic train system that will propel riders in a capsule at speeds of up to 700 mile per hour. The proposed system, which could ultimately connect Washington to New York, caught transportation advocates and legislators alike by surprise.
It’s the latest in a number of transportation announcements costing billions of dollars that some say is more about headlines than an actual plan.
“It’s fun to say you’re cutting red tape and moving faster than the speed of government but there are lots of questions that need to be answered,” said Brian O’Malley, president and chief executive officer of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.
Hogan, on his Facebook page, announced his support of a proposal by Elon Musk’s The Boring Co. to begin burrowing beneath a stretch of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway stretching from Baltimore City to Route 175 near Hanover and Odenton as part of fast transit project that could move people from Washington to New York in less than 30 minutes.
O’Malley and others said they were not opposed to the hyperloop project but said they didn’t know enough about it.
O’Malley said such a system, if it were to be built, could provide tremendous economic benefits to Maryland and open up jobs for commuters in the Northeast corridor. Cost, however, will be a factor. Ticket prices for a maglev train under consideration for the same area is expected to cost slightly more than a ticket for the Amtrak Acela, which can run up to $70 to Washington.
Breaking new ground
Hogan and Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn announced Thursday that the State Highway Administration issued a utility permit — typically issued to facilitate connecting or expanding water, sewer and electricity service — to a project that is a transportation line.
“What permit should we use to build something that has never been built before? Is there a hyperloop permit?” asked Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer. “If you’re going to do something that’s never been done before, you might have to do things that have never been done before.”
The line would not be far from a site of the proposed maglev train project that required some approvals from the Public Service Commission. The hyperloop project, should it be approved, would likely require additional studies including its impact on the environment as well as public hearings.
“We believe this project will require federal approval similar to the process that the proposed maglev project is undergoing now,” said Tori Leonard, a spokeswoman for the Public Service Commission. “Absent a request to exercise an existing franchise, we would not have any jurisdiction over this project.”
A project of this scope also will likely require federal permits or environmental reviews.
Additionally, Mayer said The Boring Co. will need to secure other construction-related permits from the Maryland Department of the Environment, Department of Natural Resources as well as Anne Arundel County.
Additionally, the same stretch of road is part of a plan announced last month by Hogan to ease congestion by adding four toll lanes along the parkway from Baltimore to Washington. That project, which includes additional lanes proposed for the Maryland sections of Interstate 495 and for the Baltimore-Washington Parkway would cost about $9 billion.
‘Just so surprised’
Pamela G. Beidle, D-Anne Arundel and chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on motor vehicles and transportation, said she doesn’t oppose the project but has a lot of questions.
“We’re all just so surprised,” Beidle said. “All of a sudden, out of the blue, we’re digging for hyperloop.”
It’s not clear if the hyperloop would compete with or supplant maglev.
“Is this a bait and switch?” Beidle asked. “Can they call it a utility and issue a permit and start digging?
Mayer, Hogan’s spokesman, acknowledged the two technologies appear to compete but said that Maryland residents would benefit.
“The governor believes in forward-looking innovative solutions,” Mayer said. “He’s going to keep pressing forward on ideas like this.”
“The governor supports the best, most efficient technology that will connect these two cities,” Mayer said. “The benefits of making that happen will be tremendous and it will benefit countless Marylander’s lives.”
Access to land
Hogan’s announcement gives The Boring Co. access to 15 miles of land under state highways, the first leg of which would likely be more than 35 miles of tunnels needed to connect Baltimore to Washington.
“While the hyperloop might be a good project, it can also serve as a shiny object and distraction from existing important transportation issues,” said Rich Hall, a former secretary of the state Department of Planning under Gov. Martin O’Malley. Hall helped write a controversial transportation project scoring bill that Hogan called “the roadkill bill.”
Hall said that “more investment in MARC could help the D.C.-to-Baltimore link, too.”
Additional approvals will be needed from Baltimore, Washington and the National Park Service, which all control rights of way in the proposed path. However, Hogan last month announced plans to construct four new toll lanes along the same stretch of highway and said his administration is asking that the state be allowed to take control of portions of the parkway under federal control.
When built, hyperloop would use capsules in vacuum tubes to move passengers at speeds that can exceed 700 miles per hour.
The company has had several successful tests of the technology already this year. In July, Musk tweeted that he had verbal permission from the federal government to start building the Hyperloop along the East Coast.
A spokesman for The Boring Co. declined to comment for this story.
Mayer said nay-sayers will sing a different tune when the project is built.
“I imagine when it’s completed and transforms Maryland, they’ll pretend they supported it all along,” he said.