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Bowie officials, residents want to ‘kill’ maglev train project

SCMaglevBOWIE – The Bowie City Council, and the residents it represents, is doubling down on its opposition to a proposed maglev train that could cut through the city.

At a lively meeting Sept. 5, more than 30 residents spoke out against the proposal by Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail (BWRR) to construct a superconducting magnetic levitation train from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. The train would use Japanese technology to harness magnetic fields and travel with greatly-reduced friction, reaching 300 miles per hour and allowing travel between the cities in 15 minutes. But Bowie residents say the benefits of the train will not be felt in their communities, and the train would instead harm them.

“This project has the potential to ruin the culture, integrity and very viability of our neighborhood, as well as drastically decreasing our property values while not benefitting our community in the least,” said Maureen Peterson, president of the Patuxent Riding Home Owner’s Association, echoing concerns shared by many residents.

The proposed train would not have any stops in Bowie, or Prince George’s County, and potential paths – called alignments – show impacts to the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis trail, Bowie State University, and private homes that could be seized by eminent domain. Residents also raised concerns about the safety of the magnetic field for those who would be living near it, the security of the maglev infrastructure in the age of terrorism, and the high cost of such an undertaking with government budgets already tight.

“Maglev is a technology that doesn’t necessarily mean it is overhead, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s superconducting. Maglev is a very good technology and someday we will have tunnels that will run maglev trains,” said Bob Shinerman, arguing that this particular project is not the right use for maglev technology in the area because of the expense of the infrastructure proposed. “You can build a small diameter tunnel, and that’s all you need for a train.”

This was the second city council meeting on the maglev train issue, convened to hear from representatives of the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT). Bradley Smith and R. Earl Lewis, Jr., deputy director for policy, planning and enterprise services, came with a presentation about the federal environmental study process they are overseeing and an assurance from the Hogan Administration that the residents’ concerns were being heard.

“No plans for construction have been approved or even proposed at this early stage,” Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn wrote in a letter to the Bowie City Council. “Please be confident and rest assured that Gov. (Larry) Hogan and the entire administration are paying very close attention to this process and will continue to stand firmly against any proposed routes that would harm local communities or affect the quality of life of the citizens along the proposed path.”

Lewis also assured the crowd that no state money would be spent on the project. State law already prohibits state funds from being used to study or construct a magnetic levitation train system.

However, it is the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that will make the final decision to approve the project or not, as the lead federal agency conducting the environmental review under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). MDOT is only involved because the federal $28.7 million grant funding the study could not go directly to BWRR as a private company.

Still, Lewis said, “If the governor’s not happy with the project, it won’t happen.”

Councilwoman Courtney Glass called Lewis out for the statement, saying her professional experience says otherwise.

“In my day job, I’m an attorney and do government relations. You keep saying that if it doesn’t have the support of local, municipalities, county, state, what have you, federal, then it’s not going to go through. I have worked in Annapolis for 11 years,” she said. “I’ve seen things go through without the support of communities, without the support of elected officials. So that sound bite, please stop using it.”

Councilman Michael Esteve also asked pointed questions about the decision makers in this case, as well as the timeline for those decisions and any potential construction.

“Have any formal decisions on this project been made whatsoever? Because we hear slightly different things from different actors and different groups on this project,” Esteve said. “We are going to be interested in the influencers and the decision makers and in getting a better sense of the timeframe moving forward.”

Smith said no decisions have been made. Rather, the project is still in the middle stages of the NEPA process. With scoping and the statement of purpose and need completed, MDOT is working with a private consultant and the FRA on compiling public comments and refining the potential alignments in preparation for a Draft Environmental Impact Statement describing the effects of the maglev on natural, cultural, economic and other resources.

“We had six alignments in April; we'll be reducing that number,” Smith said. “We’ll have more detailed information about the alternatives that are remaining and that are being carried forward (in October).

“This map (of potential alignments), at this scale, with this resolution, is not meant to convey exact locations of impacts or potential impacts. Moving forward, we’ll have much more detailed maps, and properly-sized lines and alignments that will allow you to better interpret what the potential impacts in those corridors could be.”

That wasn’t good enough for Bowie’s elected representatives. Councilmembers, members of the General Assembly and County Councilman Todd Turner all spoke out against the project in its entirety.

“You come here with an open mind on all issues, but on this issue, I am definitely a ‘no,’” state Sen. Douglas Peters said. “I’m here with my colleagues. We’re going to be unified with you against the project.”

Bowie Mayor G. Frederick Robinson added that from his perspective, there wasn’t room for compromise on this issue.

“We now have our federal legislative team pretty much on board, we have our state legislative team on board, we have our county legislative team on board. So I think we’re clearly speaking with one voice,” he said. “Our message is to kill this project.”

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