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Maglev project may be slowed down

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2003

GREENSBURG - The high-speed maglev train project may be slowed down for a few more months as federal officials review paperwork involved with the Pennsylvania proposal.

Rob Gould, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said his agency probably wouldn't give area maglev officials the go-ahead to circulate an Environmental Impact Statement draft or schedule a related public hearing for a few more months.

Federal Railroad Administration officials have been reviewing the Environmental Impact Statement draft for a few weeks. They must approve the draft before the hearing may be scheduled by maglev officials.

"We're hoping we can get through and review the (Environmental Impact Statement) so we can release it sometime in the spring," he said. "That would be the earliest point that they would be able to hold the public meetings."

The Environmental Impact Statement draft, which was submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration late last year, is a lengthy document that takes time to review, Gould said.

Maglev officials had hoped to conduct the public hearings in November or December. Maglev officials also ran behind in their original timetable.

Bob Grove, spokesman for the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which is involved in the Pennsylvania maglev project, said getting the approval this spring would pose no difficulties.

"We'll do whatever they tell us," he said. "We can't do it until we have their approval. When they give us the go-ahead, we'll start the comment period and schedule the hearing."

At the hearing, people will be able to comment on the Environmental Impact Statement draft, which is to be printed and disseminated prior to the hearing. The environmental report includes information on the routes being considered for the train, the effects the train would have on the environment, the anticipated use by riders and the projected revenues that would be raised.

After the Federal Railroad Administration approval is given, a period of time during which citizens may submit written comments about the Environmental Impact Statement draft also will be established, Grove said.

"We can have it fairly soon after we get the OK," Grove said of holding the public hearing.

He was uncertain how many hearings would be held, or where they would be held. But speakers will be given an allotted time to comment.

The maglev project uses an electromagnetic propulsion system to move a train above an elevated guideway, or track. The approximately $3.1 billion Pennsylvania project involves both private and public groups. It proposes to connect Pittsburgh and its international airport with Monroeville and a site near Greensburg, the last leg in the nearly 50-mile system.

This project is competing against another in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area to be the first maglev system in operation in the United States and for almost $1 billion in federal funding coming through the Federal Railroad Administration. A 27-member task force is expected to suggest to the Maryland General Assembly this month that the financially troubled state may not have the funds or the desire to fund its end of the $4.4 billion Baltimore-Washington maglev project.

The share for Maryland, the District of Columbia and other local governments would be about $500 million. A similar sum would have to come from Pennsylvania for the Pittsburgh-to-Greensburg project.

After the comments about the environmental report are made at the public hearing or in writing, the statements will be compiled and maglev officials will respond to them, Grove said. The comments and maglev's responses then will be forwarded to the Federal Railroad Administration to consider as it picks between the Pennsylvania project and the Baltimore-Washington proposal, he said.

Gould's agency is uncertain when it will decide between the two projects.

"We're still a month away" from scheduling a time to make that decision, he said.

Besides the rail agency selection, Congress also must appropriate the $950 million in federal funding. Many question whether Congress will want to contribute this sum in a slow economy and with demands for money in other areas.

At this point, the Bush administration has not offered an opinion on the maglev proposal.

The rail agency's share of the cost and other funding were proposed during the Clinton administration.

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