As federal and state regulators continue to hold virtual public hearings until May 24 on the Superconducting Maglev (Scmaglev) rail proposed for Baltimore to Washington, D.C., residents and council members of Prince George’s County continue to voice opposition to building the 374 mph train and would rather funding and resources be directed towards uncompleted rail projects in their county.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Maryland Department of Transportation-Maryland Transit Administration (MDT-MTA) are entrusted with measuring the impact of Scmaglev, which could take passengers from Washington to Baltimore in a 15-minute span and would also include a third stop, BWI Marshall Airport. The idea of the project is to introduce green and high-speed transportation.
The project, however, has raised major environmental concerns for residents likely to be most affected by construction, namely those living in Greenbelt and Lanham. Susan McCutchen, who lives in Bladensburg and is a co-founder of Citizens Against the Scmaglev (CATS), said she is also among the residents who will experience environmental risks such as a loss of woods and toxins released from highly placed soil.
Greenbelt is crucial for environmental research in Maryland and altering the surroundings there can be irreversible, she said. “The Greenbelt area is the lungs of Maryland, with the Patuxent Research Refuge and the Beltsville Agricultural Center, and we need those areas for all of our benefit,” McCutchen said. “The project is not beneficial in any way for improving the quality of life for the residents in the Prince George’s area.”
McCutchen said she is open to newer and better transportation if it directly benefits the communities where construction will affect the most residents. She cites Amtrak, which operates the high-speed Acela train that runs in the Northeast from Washington, D.C., to Boston, and is helping redevelopment efforts, like the Purple Line project throughout Prince George’s County.
“The world is going to move forward and things are going to advance, and it makes more sense to put money and resources towards Amtrak and Acela to make those projects cleaner and greener,” McCutchen said. “We want smart technology like some of the transit programs put out by the state and the county, because they are about community development.”
In addition to the project’s potential environmental footprint, Scmaglev’s infrastructure must be built underneath schools and homes, worrying homeowners about noise issues and a potential decline in their home values. Vicki Reynolds, a Lanham resident, said the train’s tunnel path travels directly under an elementary school in New Carrollton where her husband is a teacher.
“My husband works at Lamont Elementary school, also on the J1 tunnel path, and many of his kindergarten students live in Lilly Garden Apartments across from one of the planned Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) Launch and Retrieval Site,” Reynolds said, explaining that such a site generates distractions for kids in school such as loud noise and major vibrations from construction.
Before retiring as a teacher, Reynolds said, she learned about the project from listening to the radio station WTOP during her commutes to Howard County public schools. Reynolds said she realized that the project would travel under her home after attending a CATs meeting in the summer of 2018. A representative from Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, a sponsor of the Scmaglev project, addressed the meeting.
“I asked him the question, ‘If you found out that a project like this would tunnel under your home, what would you do?’” Reynolds said. “He responded that he would do exactly what I was doing, [and] find out as much as [he] could about the project, and that is what I've done for the past three years.”
After extensive research, Reynolds realized that the project did have potential benefits for the area, such as available construction jobs, but said that alternative projects already initiated, like MDOT’s and MTA’s Purple Line, could also bring more jobs, leaving her wondering why the push for Scmaglev is still ongoing.
“The rush to implement this system is a real head scratcher for me. I don't see why with all its potential negative impacts and risks, it is considered so attractive, particularly to some public officials,” Reynolds said. “Do these officials really want to subject the state of Maryland to the impacts and headaches that this project invariably will bring?”
Todd Turner, the Prince George’s County council member representing Greenbelt and the rest of District 4, echoed his constituents’ concerns about the train traveling directly under Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt as well as the Beltsville Agricultural Center. He said that the Scmaglev project has not been a top priority for the Prince George’s County council and their goal of improving local transit.
“The investment in more local transit is a better investment with the federal funds, and that would be what I would focus on,” Turner said. “The Prince George’s County council would support additional opportunities around our metro stations for transit-oriented development, as well as the Purple Line Project.”
Dannielle Glaros, the District 3 representative on the Prince George’s County council, feels that the focus of transportation projects should be on creating a system that moves people and grows local economies. Glaros added that Maryland is falling behind states like Virginia who have invested heavily in local transportation similar to Prince George’s Amtrak and Purple Line Project.
“What is the best use of our investment dollars? We need to be investing in projects that truly benefit communities and individuals in our neighborhoods. not just for the short-term gain, but for the long term,” Glaros said.
The Scmaglev project team did not respond to requests to be interviewed, but when reached, Brandon Bratcher, an Environmental Protection Specialist for the FRA, said, “At this time, the FRA has not selected a preferred alternative, allowing the agency the opportunity to first consider the full range of comments from agencies and the public.”
Residents who want to attend the Scmaglev public hearings can call into the event and talk for up to three minutes about their concerns with the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), written by the FRA and MDT-MTA, to ensure that their input is considered. The comment period ends May 24. The virtual public hearings, the DEIS statement and the link to submit written comments are available here: https://www.bwmaglev.info/index.php.
Reynolds encourages residents to get involved, “How much worse would enduring those impacts be if this project is allowed to proceed with incomplete analysis, known but unaddressed weaknesses and faults, immature technology, and lack of involvement and education on the part of public officials who should be representing the concerns of those most affected?”she said.