During nearly 40 years as a federal wildlife biologist at the Patuxent Research Refuge, Sam Droege has tromped across nearly every one of its 12,800 acres.

Magnetic-levitation train in Japan

A view of the high-speed magnetic-levitation train in Japan as it appeared during Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's visit in 2015.

And he doesn’t want to see any of them plowed under for a blazingly fast train. That is a growing possibility, though. With plans solidifying for a magnetic-levitation train between Baltimore and Washington, Droege and other conservation advocates are on alert for potential harm to the 85-year-old wildlife refuge.

“It’s hard to get across how special and rare this place is,” Droege said. “These places are irreplaceable. It’s not something that can be moved and remade elsewhere. It would be like going to the National Mall and removing one of the museums.”

The maglev train project took a key step forward in January when the Federal Railroad Administration and Maryland Department of Transportation published the preliminary findings of a federally mandated five-year, $28 million environmental and engineering study.

The draft environmental impact study outlines the project in detail: a sleek train floating on a cushion of air inside a U-shaped “guideway,” with all propulsion controlled by magnets. The guideway would run through tunnels bored as deep as 320 feet beneath the surface, and along elevated sections of the route looming 150 feet overhead. The maglev train can reach speeds topping 300 mph, slashing the time of the 36-mile trip between the cities to a mere 15 minutes.

But what has caught the attention of conservationists is the possibility of a largely above-ground section of the route slicing through federal lands just outside the DC Beltway.

Two routes are under consideration. Both mostly parallel the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The main decision boils down to selecting a more densely populated route to the west of the parkway or an eastern route that crosses into federal lands, including the fringe of the Patuxent wildlife refuge.

The new analysis calculates that the eastern route could be constructed atop as much as 24 acres of the refuge’s property. A western route would leave it untouched. Both routes would bisect the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, another federal oasis of open space, with as much as 187 acres being given over to the maglev and its supporting infrastructure.

Conservationists say that inside the refuge, the project would destroy wildlife habitat, upend wetlands and possibly require the re-routing of streams.

“I can’t find words strong enough to express what I feel,” said Marcia Watson, president of the Patuxent Bird Club. “It’s an environmental disaster in the making. I am outraged that a private company thinks it can waltz in here and take our land.”

Northeast Maglev, the company backing the project, says it will reduce travel times and ease congestion on the often-gridlocked roads connecting Washington and Baltimore. It will also be an economic boon, creating up to 195,000 jobs during construction and supporting up to 440 jobs while in operation, according to the draft study.

The environment will benefit from lower greenhouse gas emissions, a result of converting thousands of drivers into train passengers, said Wayne Rogers, the company’s CEO. The region can also look forward to improved water quality, he added.

“Traffic’s hurting everybody. The [Chesapeake] Bay is getting 85 million pounds of [nitrogen] pollution coming into it [from the air], and much of that is from transportation,” Rogers said.

Forest near Patuxent Research Refuge

This wooded area in Maryland would be replaced by a sprawling trainyard near the border of the Patuxent Research Refuge and Beltsville Agricultural Research Center under one of the scenarios being considered for the construction of a high-speed magnetic-levitation train. (Sam Droege/U.S. Geological Survey)

It is not the first time that a maglev has been proposed between Baltimore and the nation’s capital. In the 2000s, the Federal Railroad Administration and Maryland Transit Administration got as far as finalizing an environmental impact study and selecting a transportation system based, at the time, on Germany’s Transrapid technology. Then came a budget crunch and a legislative blockade on state spending toward the effort.

Northeast Maglev revived the idea in 2010. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, began lobbying the federal government to pick up the tab for a new study. The campaign was highlighted by a 2015 trip to Japan in which Hogan rode on a maglev train at speeds exceeding 300 mph. Afterward, he pronounced it an “incredible experience.”

Japan has vowed to contribute $5 billion toward construction; the bulk of the $10.6 billion to $12.9 billion total cost is expected to be privately funded.

In their new report, the Federal Railroad Administration and state transportation department opted against identifying a preferred route, saying they will consider the public’s reaction to the document and other federal agency input before making a call.

Northeast Maglev officials say they favor the eastern alignment, which would impact the Patuxent refuge, because it poses fewer impacts to existing neighborhoods. The train would operate between Mount Vernon Square in Washington and the Cherry Hill neighborhood in Baltimore, with a lone stop at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. In Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, the project has drawn protests from residents who say they will bear all the burdens of the train without any benefits because of the lack of stops.

A sprawling train-maintenance facility would be raised in the western part of the Beltsville research center, under this building scenario. That area is home to many rare plant species and one of the southernmost of gatherings of pine barrens, said Droege, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey, which has a research facility based at Patuxent. His comments about the project reflect solely his own observations, not his employer’s, he said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the Patuxent refuge, said the agency will voice its opinion when it submits written comments this spring. But in a January 2017 email made public along with the environmental analysis, a Fish and Wildlife official then-stationed at Patuxent told the railroad administration that running the route through the refuge would probably be a “non-starter.”

Patuxent is unique among the nation’s more than 500 refuges as the only place set aside for conducting wildlife research, Watson said. “All the other refuges depend on the research done at Patuxent,” she explained.

Fish and Wildlife officials likely will need to complete a “compatibility determination” before deciding whether to allow the company to build in the refuge. And stripping any land from the refuge or agricultural research center is expected to require Congressional approval before it can happen.

(9) comments

craigpurcell

Seems like a transit system should connect to other forms of transit like marine transit coming from the Eastern Shore to Baltimore and also connecting in with the Light Rail which would seem to make Westport a priority location for a station.

jausema

A appreciate the reporting on impacts to wildlife habitat within the Patuxent Wildlife Research center. However I want to point out that wildlife habitat and ecosystem services will also be impacted if the route on the west side of the parkway is chosen. That route would destroy a significant portion of the forest within the Greenbelt Forest Preserve, owned by the city of Greenbelt. This article leaves the impression that an easy solution to avoid environmental impacts of the construction would be to choose the west side route, but that's not the case. One professional biologist who lives in Greenbelt estimated that 60 acres of the Greenbelt Forest Preserve will be cut down if the west side route is chosen.

JEN

First class travel (speed?) may be a solution for business, but the damage to such vital ecosystems is not carefully thought-out. Living in a community that is being targeted for such limited commercial gain for so few is heartbreaking. Stop this train! Amtrak's 1st Class Acela service is plenty and capable of accommodating those who can afford it, and is already built. Our way of life makes room for trees, flowers, wildlife, quiet walks and streams: the way life should be.

pattymcgrath

You don't destroy a pristine ecosystem to 'reduce vehicle emissions'. This MAGLEV effort is misplaced. Rather than a rich person's convenience, we should focus on improving the quality and speed of AMTRAK. High speed trains in Italy use conventional rain lines and provide superb connectivity. Building a completely redundant MAGLEV line, with a 200 Acre rail yard in an Ag Research or NASA Research station should be a complete non-starter. If the project couldn't be profitable without the GIFTING of lands conserved for over 100 years - then it isn't a good idea. If they want to build it along the AMTRAK lines already in place - then there will not be as devastating an ecological effect. But then, they might have to PAY for that use.

MCF

The DEIS forecasts that the proposed maglev would have an insignificant impact on road congestion. The catch is that the review’s executive summary states only that there would be an improvement in road-congestion, burying in its appendices the evidence that the improvement would be so small as to be barely noticeable, as per expert Owen Kelley.

Regarding GHG emissions, the DEIS does not consider the emissions contributed by all the steel and concrete manufactured for the project, the polluting deisel traffic that will be transporting dirt from the tunnels, the energy needed to run the train, or the destruction of natural areas which act as carbon sinks. We'll save the ridership non-data for a later comment.

Scatman

MAGLEV is a totally bad idea for the environment. The loss of wetlands, disruption of natural corridors, the use of public lands are but a FEW of the many detrimental effects of this project. Currently the MAGLEV support group is suggesting how beneficial the project would be for job creation - with little if any support. The minimal $16 billion dollar cost would go a long way in improving AMTRAC and MARC Train services that already exist.

SBW

n his commentary (link below) in the Capital Gazette, George Donohue says “The superconducting magnetic levitation train is a solution looking for a problem. Why are we still considering the maglev’s system’s additional $40 billion investment to save 40 minutes?” He goes on to explain that though it is worthwhile considering highspeed rail, this project is not the right one.

Amtrak has already begun its plans to upgrade by ordering new trainsets which will offer “increased speed, capacity, and operational frequency along the route.” What is still needed is to have road beds improved – these costs have been included in their budget. Investing in these will provide the increased speed, connectivity, capacity and frequency we seek without the huge environmental, community and financial costs the SCMaglev will demand.

Link to cited article: https://www.capitalgazette.com/opinion/columns/ac-ce-column-george-donohue-2021221-20210220-3awl4hbsrngsdly67lm3uw6ozq-story.html

MCF

Research scientist Owen Kelley has written 2 articles that expose the false claims made by the Maglev promoters that this train will decrease emissions and traffic congestion. To the contrary, the construction and operation of Maglev will increase emissions he found, and Maglev will do very little to decrease traffic congestion. Check out Kelley's articles at https://www.sierraclub.org/maryland/prince-georges/blog/2020/12/would-proposed-baltimore-washington-maglev-increase-greenhouse and

https://www.greenbeltonline.org/maglev-would-do-little-to-reduce-road-congestion-says-federal-railroad-administration/. Of course, articles like this one, accepting Maglev claims which are not supported by facts (since Maglev has not provided any)create an incomplete picture of the negative effects of this train for "elite business travelers", as described on the Maglev site.

grantj

The FRA's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (www.bwmaglev.info) concludes the project will reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions, reducing regional Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMTs) by 9 to 12 percent by 2045 (Chapter 4.16). There's also a ridership study in the DEIS (D.4) that estimates there will be 11 to 16 million less automobile trips per year with the Maglev.

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