High-speed Maglev trains could one day whiz underneath South Baltimore’s Westport community under a recent legal settlement, but planning documents show the proposed passenger rail tunnel would be much more extensive than just one neighborhood.
Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail — the private company pushing for a high-speed magnetic levitation train connecting New York and Washington, D.C., via Baltimore — recently reached an out-of-court settlement with Westport Capital Development that allows for construction of a rail tunnel underneath housing and mixed-use developments planned for the South Baltimore waterfront, as reported by the Baltimore Business Journal.
Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail filed to have the Westport property condemned after it was unable to negotiate its purchase from Stonewall Capital, the parent company of Westport Capital Development. The company is developing the major mixed-use project along with a waterfront park.
However, the tunnel underneath Westport is just a piece of the plan.
Phase 1 of construction for the rail line, which developers say would use superconducting, energy-efficient magnets to reach speeds of up to 311 mph, would follow one of two plans, according to project documents available on the project’s website. Each plan would connect Baltimore and Washington, D.C., with slight variations in track location.
One alignment would run 27 miles, or 75%, underground, with the rest on elevated track. The second alignment would require just shy of 26 miles worth of tunneling, with the rest elevated. Each alignment would run fully underground from Baltimore to a point south of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, and then again from Greenbelt to Washington, D.C. Upon completion, each tunneled section alone would be among the largest passenger rail tunnels in the United States.
California’s high-speed rail line, currently under construction between San Francisco and Los Angeles, will feature a 13.5-mile tunnel through the mountains southeast of San Jose. Once complete, it would be the longest intercity passenger rail tunnel in the country, according to planning documents.
The estimated cost of the future Maryland Maglev project is around $10 billion, but costs only go up as timelines extend. A 2021 analysis from the Eno Center for Transportation estimated that $323 million would be required to build one mile of tunneled passenger rail for the percentage of tunneling proposed by the Maryland Maglev project, a higher price than other countries around the world due to issues like permitting and high labor costs. No construction money has been allocated and a funding plan has not been put forward.
The Westport tunnel was always a possibility, said Ashley Mcmillian, director of community outreach and communications for Northeast Maglev. And one of two possible Baltimore station locations has yet to be finalized — if Cherry Hill is selected, the train would come in above ground, but a downtown station near Camden Yards and the Baltimore Convention Center would be underground.
“Nothing has changed with the preferred alternatives that are under review by the Federal Railroad Administration,” Mcmillian said. The agency has currently paused its environmental impact study on the two proposed routes, a step that must be completed before an alternative is selected and a construction timeline set.
Amtrak recently began its own two-mile Frederick Douglass Tunnel Program, which will replace a more than 150-year-old passenger rail tunnel in West Baltimore for its electric passenger trains that move through the Northeast. And Maryland Transit Administration officials are currently deciding whether the east-west Red Line will include construction of a new tunnel underneath downtown for the future transit service.
Some community leaders are concerned about the impact of a Maglev tunnel, should it become a reality.
“The community does not want another large infrastructure that will further divide our community or dig through the ground where chemicals could be exposed,” said Keisha Allen, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association and and co-founder of the community’s economic development corporation. “We’re not supporting anything like this without environmental studies.”
Allen said the community has plenty of needs that don’t include a passenger rail tunnel. She and her neighbors want to see more affordable housing, help for small businesses, and an end to the city-contracted, waste-to-energy incinerator just north of the neighborhood.
“We’re not asking for much here, we’re asking for things that other communities take for granted,” Allen said.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.