MagLev it to Beaver

The Port Authority of Allegheny County has received an additional $1.9 million towards a proposed 54-mile "maglev" project. The Port Authority entered into this grant agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) this past Friday, according to Port Authority spokesperson Bob Grove. The maglev project, which involves using strong magnetic fields to suspend and propel a train along a specialized magnetic track at speeds of up to 240 mph, was originally proposed for Pittsburgh in the mid-'90s.

In 1990, a Maglev Working Group developed through Carnegie Mellon was incorporated to form Maglev Inc. The company has since worked with the Port Authority and the FRA to privately and publicly fund the installation, which would connect Pittsburgh International Airport, Downtown, Monroeville, and Greensburg. In 2003, Maglev Inc. moved from Monroeville to a 32,000-square-foot former steel plant. At the time of the move, Pulp magazine reported that Maglev would work with up to $20 million in U.S. Navy funding to research and help implement the technology over the next three years.

Maglev train technology is new to the U.S. The first commercial use of high-speed maglev was implemented in Shanghai, China, in 2002, using a train developed by the German company Transrapid International. It was inaugurated in December of 2003 and currently runs over a 19-mile stretch in less than 10 minutes. Its average speed is 267 mph, slightly higher than the proposed top speed of the Pittsburgh maglev project.

The Shanghai maglev train is the only commercial high-speed maglev in operation. Along with Germany and Japan, the U.S. government began researching opportunities for placement in the 1990s. In the past few years, seven prospective project sites were narrowed down to two: the Pittsburgh proposal and a Baltimore-to-Washington proposal. Both are still being considered, and no set decision date has been made.

In an interview with The Tartan on Friday, Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove said that the Pittsburgh proposal was more likely to be accepted than any alternative proposal. Grove described the project as "a national trial, to see how this technology can respond to the demands put on it on an urban setting." Pittsburgh's climate, he says, is much more demanding than that of the Washington area: "They do not have the topography that we do, the hills and the rivers to negotiate." He also stressed Pittsburgh's colder winters as another factor that would make the area more suitable for such a trial installation, which if it were approved would win $950 million in federal funds for its construction.

However, there has been some speculation as to whether enough money would come from the private sector to cover an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion in total costs. In a 2002 Tribune-Review column, policy analyst Paul Stifflemire estimated that "just the return on the $2 billion 'investment' would require an average of 37,500 riders every day, paying an average $15 fare."

When asked if there would be enough passengers in the Pittsburgh area riding the maglev every day to justify its expense, Grove said that the Port Authority was still "really working through that in the planning document," and stressed that the project was not funded by the Port Authority. "We're trying to push this along to the draft environmental impact statement. We have a draft of the draft submitted to the FRA in August. The FRA has to approve the draft of that document; once they're happy that the document has accurately looked at all the impacts ... it will ask us to publish it."

Once the statement has been published, a public comment period will follow, although Grove said that this will in any event happen "no earlier than January;" during that time, the Port Authority will entertain a series of public hearings to allow residents to ask questions and voice opinions about the project.