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Maglev to Destroy Habitat, Climate

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Randal O’Toole

A proposed maglev line between Washington and Baltimore will disrupt 1,000 acres of “parks, recreational facilities and wetlands,” according to a recently released draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the project. That’s a lot of land considering that all but nine miles of the project would be underground. While 180 acres are for a maintenance facility, the remaining acres represent a right‐​of‐​way that is an average of 750 feet wide.

This potential disruption has raised the ire of the local chapter of the Audubon Society, which is opposing the plan. As I recently noted, such land disruptions will be an issue for all high‐​speed rail lines, and in that analysis I was clearly being conservative in assuming a mere 80‐​foot right‐​of‐​way. By contrast, airlines don’t need any right‐​of‐​way once they leave the airports.

Bird watchers are not the only opponents of the maglev plan. NASA has facilities that “require minimal disturbances from vibration, artificial lighting and electromagnetic interference,” it says, and it opposes the location of the maglev because it will disturb those facilities. City of Washington planners warn that a proposed station near Mount Vernon Square would destroy the character of that neighborhood.

The Washington Post article about the DEIS makes the usual claim that it would “help cut greenhouse gas emissions, taking about 16 million car trips off the road annually by 2045.” But the air quality analysis in the DEIS considers only toxic pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, not carbon dioxide. However, the energy analysis finds that the project would end up using 4 trillion BTUs of energy per year while all of the cars it would take off the road would save less than 0.9 trillion BTUs.

Electricity generated in Maryland produces about 733 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt‐​hour. Since 4 trillion BTUs is equal to 1.17 million megawatt‐​hours, that represents nearly 860 million pounds per year. By comparison, the annual energy savings from reduced auto driving represents only 137 million pounds of carbon dioxide. Of course, Maryland power plants may become more climate friendly, but so will automobiles. As I say, the DEIS didn’t include this kind of an analysis, so the Post’s claim has no foundation.

The project is economically dubious as well. It is currently projected to cost $13.8 billion to $16.8 billion, or $345 million to $420 million per mile. Of course, the actual cost will probably be somewhere between $20 and $30 billion. What do we get for that?

Currently, Amtrak’s Acela covers the route in 29 minutes at fares ranging from $19 to $44. Amtrak’s conventional trains take 37 minutes at fares ranging from $8 to $25. Buses take as little as 40 minutes at fares ranging from $2.50 to $20.

Maglev backers promise their line will take just 15 minutes and that fares will range from $27 to $80, with an average of $60. In other words, it will cost $8 to $36 to save 14 minutes, $19 to $55 to save 22 minutes, or $25 to $60 to save 25 minutes.

Clearly, the main users of the maglev line will be bureaucrats and lobbyists who will have someone else (mainly taxpayers) pay their way. What is less clear is why ordinary taxpayers should pay to build a line that they won’t ever use or why the Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, thinks this is a good idea simply because the Japanese gave him a free ride on their prototype model.


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