» Projects in Georgia, Pennsylvania get millions; Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Baltimore still waiting to hear.
One clear demonstration of the United States’ lack of coherent national transportation policy objectives is its approach to funding magnetic levitation train projects. Rather than making a decision about what to fund, the Congress occasionally appropriates a relatively small pot of money, then the DOT distributes cash for planning studies. Nothing ever gets off the ground.
That, at least, is how it has worked since 1999, when the DOT first awarded $12 million in planning funds to seven proposed projects in California, Nevada, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. By 2001, the agency announced it would pick either a line between Baltimore and Washington or one connecting Pittsburgh and its suburbs for almost $1 billion in construction dollars, eventually deciding on the latter. By 2005, however, all funds had been cut off by an uncommitted congress, despite the fact that $62 million had already been distributed; meanwhile, states and municipalities had contributed virtually nothing to the projects. Maglev seemed dead.
The news this month that Atlanta and Pittsburgh have received more planning funds — $14 million for the former and $28 million for the latter — and that other projects funded back in 1999 may once again get appropriations in the coming days seems like a continuation of this destructive cycle. If so, these dollars are nothing more than a waste of money, because there is little chance that funds for actual construction will ever appear. Yet the Congress devoted $90 million maglev two years ago, knowing that actually getting big-budget funds for the projects’ completion from Washington would be almost impossible. Nor has there ever been a concerted effort by either Congress or the Department of Transportation to show why maglev projects should be funded at all.
What’s saddest about this seemingly mindless distribution of money is that it comes just before the U.S. will announce the first appropriations from its $8 billion high-speed rail program — including to projects that might compete directly with sections of the proposed maglev lines. What is it then? If the federal government is going to be spending money on new rail lines, it should at least come to a conclusion about which specific project it wants to fund, rather than wasting money on competing ones.
Perhaps more problematic is the fact that there is a very limited business case for maglev compared to traditional high-speed rail; unlike electric-catenary rail-running trains, maglev features expensive, proprietary technology that is completely incompatible with existing lines, so improvements in one location will only affect commuters in that area. A Baltimore-Washington maglev project does not help commuters between Washington and Philadelphia, unless they are willing to transfer in Baltimore; on the other hand, speeding up the existing tracks between the first two cities would be quite effective for reducing travel times for everyone in the corridor.
A recent study of a proposed maglev line between LAX Airport and Ontario Airport, via downtown Los Angeles, demonstrated very few advantages of a potential magnetic line over a traditional one — it would be only about 10% faster, would attract only 10% more customers, but would cost an eye-popping 60% more to build. Worse, the maglev corridor would have no direct connections with the planned (and partially funded!) California High-Speed Rail project. Considering that the DOT still has $45 million to devote to maglev projects west of the Mississippi, it seems likely that this Los Angeles maglev — competing with an underdeveloped Gulf Coast project and a connection between Las Vegas and California, a political third rail — will get at least several million in funds this year for further studies, no matter the project’s benefits.
The two projects approved for funding last week aren’t any better. The Pittsburgh line would run between its airport, the city center, and the small suburban towns of Monroeville and Greensburg, a 54-mile route that would take 35 minutes to traverse. The corridor in Georgia would connect Atlanta and Chattanooga, with the ultimate goal of extending the line to Chicago, according to conservative Congressman Zach Wamp (R-TN), who is a major project proponent. Why are these lines the priorities for U.S. maglev funding? The answer appears to be the fact that the projects being proposed in the U.S. are so weak in general that the DOT’s $90 million just has to be distributed… somewhere.
The DOT should not waste millions of dollars on planning studies for projects that have been under consideration for a decade unless there is a reliable possibility that their construction will ever be funded. You wouldn’t fund a study to consider an underwater sea-city, because it’s obvious that the government would never pay for it to be built. The Congress has never committed wholeheartedly to maglev; even support for traditional high-speed rail may be more precarious than its supporters may assume. But the lack of a long-term engagement with maglev is probably a good thing, since the mode generally makes little sense as an alternative. Nonetheless, it is too bad that Congressional priorities seem more focused on making a statement in favor of a project than in actually seeing it through.
Update, 17 September:
The federal government has awarded $45 million in planning studies to the Las Vegas-Anaheim maglev proposal. This is a surprise considering how politically volatile the project has been in the past and comes despite the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood have come out against the maglev proposal, in favor of the alternative traditional high-speed rail Desert Xpress project. The choice of the Vegas line reaffirms the argument made above, that is, that the federal government is simply throwing money around. We all know that no one is going to commit to actually building the Las Vegas maglev line. The administration is giving away talking points to Republicans…
Update, 21 September:
To add to the general confusion over the selection of Las Vegas for maglev funds, the Federal Railroad Administration is now denying that it has made an award or decision for the project, according to the Review Journal. On the other hand, those interviewed in the article still think it will get the money this week nonetheless.