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Federal review of Baltimore-Washington high-speed maglev project ‘paused’

Wayne Rogers, chairman and CEO of Northeast Maglev. (The Daily Record/Adam Bednar)

Wayne Rogers, chairman and CEO of Northeast Maglev. (The Daily Record/Adam Bednar)

WASHINGTON — The Federal Railroad Administration has temporarily halted its analysis of the proposed high-speed “maglev” train system in the Washington region to give those behind the project more time to provide details about its design and engineering.

Wayne Rogers, chief executive of Northeast Maglev, the team of private investors behind the project to provide service between Washington and Baltimore in 15 minutes, confirmed the delay in the federal analysis, saying the pause is related to optimizing the design of the maglev, its entire alignment and the stations.

Rogers said the company is working to provide the “answers necessary” to move forward the environmental impact statement, or EIS. Without providing specifics, he said the group is preparing additional engineering information “so that more detail is available for review by the regulatory agencies and the public.”

The FRA embarked on the project review in 2016 and was expected to finalize the process in mid-2019. Upon completion of the environmental impact statement, the FRA could give clearance for tunneling, now set to begin as early as 2021, and operations in 2028. The agency could also rule against building the line – a wish of many residents along the route’s path who fear its impact on property and the corridor’s environment.

The federal government’s decision to pause the project was first reported by the Baltimore Sun. The Sun also reported a review of the project’s impact on historic property in Baltimore is unaffected by the delay and is expected to be completed in February.

Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state and FRA are waiting on updated engineering input from Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail, the subsidiary of Baltimore-based Northeast Maglev.

“FRA has decided to ‘pause’ the EIS so that work does not have to be redone once the engineering inputs are finalized,” Henson said in an email, referring questions regarding the status of the project to Northeast Maglev.

The high-speed superconducting magnetic levitation system between Washington and Baltimore is planned with three stops: one in each city and at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. The train would not stop in communities between Baltimore and Washington.

The 40-mile rail line is planned as the first leg of a system that would move people from Washington to New York in an hour. Building the District of Columbia-Baltimore stretch could cost between $10 billion and $12 billion, of which Northeast Maglev had said it has secured $5 billion from Japan.

Residents and local elected leaders along the route have voiced concerns about the project, citing impacts on private and public property and fears that the project will need a public subsidy. Some residents say Northeast Maglev has not provided answers to basic question about the project’s financing, how much it will cost to ride once completed, construction impacts on neighborhoods and the depth of the tunnel.

State Del. Nicole Williams, D-Prince George’s, said she expects the EIS report will answer those questions when complete and also address concerns from residents in Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Baltimore.

“The community feels as though they have not been given all of the correct information. There’s just a level of distrust,” Williams said. “We are very much looking forward to seeing the EIS. The timetable keeps getting pushed back, but it will be nice to get concrete information when it comes out.”

The FRA is considering two potential routes parallel to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. On the east side of the highway, the route would encroach on federal land, including the parkway, the National Security Agency at Fort Meade and NASA in Greenbelt. Northeast Maglev officials say this is their preferred option. On the west side, the rail line would track along the edge of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway right of way and affect some residential properties.

The FRA, in partnership with the Maryland Department of Transportation, has been leading a federally mandated environmental review of the project through which it evaluates potential impacts on the communities along the proposed route. Project officials now say they anticipate a draft of the environmental impact statement in the first half of 2020, followed by another public comment period. It could be a year before the final report deciding the fate of the project is issued.

Northeast Maglev touts the line as a way to ease travel along congested Interstate 95. Chiefly, the group says, it would add rail capacity to the Northeast Corridor – the nation’s busiest rail network – while the technology would revolutionize train travel, bringing it closer to flying and free it of the delays that plague today’s railroads.

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