USDOT Grants $28 Million for DC-Baltimore Maglev Study

November 19, 2015

As headlines this week have indicated, the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) granted the State of Maryland $27.8 million for “preconstruction and planning costs for the potential development of a magnetic levitation (maglev) train between Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD.”

The funding for this grant has a troubled legislative history. Section 1307 of the August 2005 SAFETEA-LU Act created a maglev deployment program to pay 100 percent of eligible project costs and had a funding authorization level of $90 million, to be spent “50 percent for the MAGLEV project between Las Vegas and Primm, Nevada and 50 percent for a MAGLEV project located east of the Mississippi River.” But due to a staff error, the $90 million authorization from the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund was not made contract authority and therefore was subject to an appropriation that never came.

Almost three years later, section 102 of the SAFETEA-LU Technical Corrections Act of 2008 fixed that problem by making the original authorization level contract authority – but it also lowered the federal share of any maglev projects from 100 percent to 80 percent and also clarified that the money was “to remain available until expended.” It also clarified that the Nevada project was to be done cooperatively with the Nevada and California DOTs and was part of a proposed Las Vegas to Anaheim high-speed rail system, and that the east-of-the-Mississippi project was to be selected “using such criteria as the Secretary deems appropriate.” During floor debate, House T&I chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) said that the intent was that the east-of-the-Mississippi money was limited to “three existing projects east of the Mississippi River; Pittsburgh, Baltimore-Washington and Atlanta-Chattanooga.”

(The Pittsburgh project was a proposed 54-mile line connecting Pittsburgh International Airport through downtown Pittsburgh to Greensburg, PA, and the Atlanta to Chattanooga project, which would originate at ATL and run through the city to Chattanooga, TN.)

The Anaheim to Vegas maglev project later collapsed. Section 192 of the FY 2015 Department of Transportation Appropriations Act transferred that $45 million to carry out other passenger rail planning grants, but the other $45 million for an east-of-the-Mississippi project remained available despite repeated efforts from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and others to rescind the money for that project and other “orphan earmarks.”

The Federal Railroad Administration issued a notice of funding availability in October 2008 for the east-of-the-Mississippi money, with applications due in February 2009. But eagle-eyed ETW readers will note that something big happened during those four months – a change in Presidents, and the new Administration had some specific ideas on passenger rail policy that resulted in the maglev projects being put on the back burner. FRA then waited six-and-a-half years before issuing another NOFA for the money in March 2015.

According to Maryland’s press release, “the Maryland application for the federal grant was submitted in April with the understanding that the Japanese government will be a source of significant backing for the project, along with private-sector support from Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail LLC.”

The Northeast Maglev group, whose primary goal is to bring maglev technology to the northeast corridor has been pushing development in recent years. Vocal supporters and advisory board members of this group include former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), and former U.S. Secretaries of Transportation Mary Peters and Rodney Slater.

According the to the Congressional Research Service, “it is generally believed that [maglev] projects are very expensive, in part because the need for a relatively straight guideway may require costly land acquisition and tunneling.” The estimated cost of the Washington to Baltimore maglev leg is almost $10 billion.

While maglev technology was developed in the United States in the 1960s, federal investment in the exploration of maglev technology began in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) under the sponsorship of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY). Section 1036 of ISTEA included $500 million in contract authority for maglev development and an additional $250 million from the general fund. However, beginning in FY 1993, the annual Transportation Appropriations Acts contained provisos preventing any of that maglev money from being spent, and then section 203(b) of the NHS Designation Act of 1995 repealed the money.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century of 1998 (TEA-21) and SAFETEA-LU also included much smaller amounts of contract authority funding for maglev development. No ground has been broken on any of the proposed maglev projects in the United States.

Maglev technology should be distinguished from other high-speed rail (HSR) technology. Maglev is a specific technology that uses magnetic levitation to move vehicles without touching the ground, travelling at an average speed of 250 miles per hour. On the other hand, conventional HSR uses standard wheel on steel technology. The federal government has invested both specifically in maglev technology as well as conventional HSR.

Neither the 2012 MAP-21 law nor either the House or Senate versions of the proposed DRIVE Act currently in conference not contain any funding for maglev.

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