The Public Purpose
Number 62 - June 2003

Mag-Lev: Time for a Decent Burial

By Wendell Cox

One great advantage about the infrequent genuine government funding crises is that choices have to be made, which tends to make government less inefficient over the long run. It sometimes even happens that irrational projects are cancelled.

Such a fate may befall the Baltimore to Washington "magnetic levitation" train project. "Mag lev" is a technology whose time has, and never will come. Like the atomic car somoe touted in the 1950s, other developments have long since rendered the technology obsolete. What remains with us, however, is government's habit of spending money on things that don't make sense. Mag Lev has earned the gold medal, hands down.

Mag Lev is attractive. Who has not seen the attractive artists renderings on popular science magazines? They have been running since the 1960s, at least. The trains, can operate over 200 miles per hour on monorails like Disneyland made famous.

But there are problems. Why, for example, would anyone need to exceed 200 miles per hour between Washington and Baltimore, a distance of less than 40 miles? Where would the $3.5 billion come from to build the system? --- a bargain not likely to be delivered since infrastructure projects often double or even triple in cost as they proceed. Who is going to pay the $27 each way that would be required simply to pay for the operating costs? Are there no highways between the two cities? Are there no MARC trains? Are there no Amtrak trains? One thing is sure, however, the 33,000 that the planners say will pay these high fares every day will never escape their present incarnation as numbers in a computer model.

Mag Lev arrived too late to make a difference. Mag Lev might have had a chance if the Wright Brothers had not complicated things with airplanes. But airplanes can do anything that Mag Lev can do faster, and for less.

But if Mag Lev cannot compete with airplanes, it is even less competitive in urban transport, such as the Baltimore to Washington route. Over the past 50 years, the nation has suburbanized to the extent that all but trips to downtown areas require cars. Rail systems like MARC, Washington's Metro, and Baltimore's light rail system do a good job of getting people to downtown. But few people who work in the suburbs can use transit, because few suburban job locations are served by transit service that is auto-competitive. This is the most fundamental problem transit agencies face --- not only in the United States, but also in Western Europe. Most people live and work in the suburbs, and most of their trips would either take to long on transit, or there isn't even any transit service to ride. We may have what are called regional transit authorities and metropolitan transit authorities, but the reality is that they are downtown transit authorities.

Mag Lev's problem is even worse. Imagine the convenience of a line that speeds from downtown Baltimore to Washington's Union Station at greater than Indianapolis 500 speeds. You leave your Hunt Valley office at 10:30 am for a Washington lunch appointment. After driving 20 to 30 minutes to the park and ride lot in downtown Baltimore, walking to the station, and passing through security (yes, 200 mile per hour trains will need airport-type security), you take a seat next to Buck Rogers and are on your way. Twenty minutes later you arrive at Union Station; board Metro and walk into the downtown restaurant 10 minutes before your noon appointment.

On most days, the car would be faster. This is precisely the point. Mag Lev makes sense for those who start their trip within walking distance of the origin station and end their trip within walking distance of the destination station. There would be only three of those (including the BWI station), and while there are many destinations in downtown Baltimore and the Union Station area, the vast majority of trips neither begin nor end anywhere near either of these places.

Indeed, for most people in the narrow Baltimore to Washington corridor, MARC makes much more sense. While you are whizzing by Odenton or Halethorpe on Mag Lev, don't imagine that the local residents who work near the Capitol are trekking over to BWI or up to Baltimore to catch Mag Lev. They'll be on MARC, or in their cars.

But perhaps the most irrational characteristic of this project was that it was to have been built to support the 2012 Olympics. Spending $3.5 billion or $7.0 billion to support a two-week event is like blowing the retirement account on a two-week cruise.

Mag-Lev in the era of airplanes makes about as much sense as it would have to hook an internal combustion motor to a horse after the automobile became dominant. It is time to give this "way back to the future" project the burial it has so richly earned.


Author Wendell Cox is a transportation and demographics consultant and a public policy commentator. He is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy in the St. Louis area. He also serves as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985), during which time he was elected to chair the American Public Transit Association Policy and Planning and Governing Boards Committees. In 1999, Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council, to fill the unexpired term of New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman. He has testified by invitation to committees of the US Senate and US House of Representatives and to 35 state and provincial legislative committees.

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