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Maglev rival deals with dissenters

| Tuesday, March 5, 2002

Westmoreland County residents aren't alone in their concerns about a proposed path for a high-speed magnetic levitation train.

Some residents in the other area seeking to host the first maglev train in the United States — Baltimore to Washington, D.C. — also are objecting to that project.

"I think we have both," maglev Baltimore-Washington project manager Shuhair Alkhatib said of detractors and supporters. " We have people showing great support <#201> and you have people who could be impacted and are not crazy about moving from their houses."

Right now, the Baltimore-Washington project is considering three possible routes — along Interstate 95, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the Amtrak line. Each comes with additional options.

Alkhatib said people who are objecting to the Baltimore-Washington project the most are those most affected by the proposed routes.

"With any <#201> project, you have people whose communities could be impacted, their homes impacted, their businesses impacted, and they are critical," Alkhatib said.

And like their neighbors in Pennsylvania, people between Baltimore and Washington are growing more concerned as they learn more and more about maglev and its alignments.

Up to this point, media coverage has been periodic in the Baltimore and Washington areas, several people said. That observation is apparent in a quick Internet sampling of the major metropolitan newspapers in the area as well as a gander at smaller ones.

"The project hasn't received much publicity in this area. A number of communities have learned of it (recently) and requested presentations (from Maglev officials)," said Michael McLaughlin, city manager for Greenbelt, a community of approximately 21,000 people about 20 miles outside of Washington.

Greenbelt Councilman Rodney Roberts agreed with McLaughlin's assessment.

"There hasn't been much yet," Roberts said of media coverage. "The debate really hasn't started."

Greenbelt residents opposed to the project are most concerned about its possible passage through the nearby Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, a lush 7,000-acre facility operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Another route through the area has raised objections because of its proximity to neighborhoods and businesses.

Douglas Love, a self-described staunch environmentalist, is among those Greenbelt residents troubled by the Baltimore-Washington project.

He said the Greenbelt council learned about the project a few weeks ago.

"I told them, 'What are you going to do about maglev?' They said, 'What?' Nobody knew about it," Love said. "Now that they found out it's going to come here, bulldoze a lot of woods and not even stop here, they don't want it. We like progress, but we don't like progress at the cost of our environment, and that's where we stand."

"Our biggest problem is where they want to put it," Councilman Roberts said. "I really question whether it's a good project for an area that's so densely populated. <#201> You can't put it anywhere where somebody doesn't have a home or a business."

All three alignments on the approximately 40-mile project include a stop at the Baltimore Washington International Airport, or BWI.

"Personally, I don't know why we need to get from Baltimore to Washington in 20 minutes. I can get in my vehicle (and make the trip) in 45 minutes," Roberts said.

McLaughlin said maglev's noise is a concern. He said at a presentation several weeks ago, maglev officials were not able to describe the train's noise level to his satisfaction.

"(Noise) is not going to be an infrequent concern if you live nearby," McLaughlin said, noting maglev officials need to run the train through the area "a few times an hour" to make it profitable.

A lack of stopping points in the train's path was a concern cited several times in newspaper articles from Baltimore to Washington.

Others questioned whether Congress would want to fund maglev, to cost in the billions, in light of a slowed economy and the Sept. 11 tragedy.

The Federal Railroad Administration is to decide in spring 2003 whether western Pennsylvania or the Baltimore-Washington area will be the first U.S. maglev system and receive $950 million in up-front money. Congress holds the ultimate purse strings.

What Alkhatib and others are attempting to do as part of an environmental impact study currently under way — the same type of study that is being done for the Pennsylvania project — is to reduce the effects on communities.

"It's a balancing act that requires a lot of caring and a lot of effort (with reducing the effect) on residential, business and community folks," he said.

Alkhatib explained that options being considered for a maglev line is a section through a tunnel "to reduce the impact."

He hopes to reduce the three possible routes to two choices this month.

Alkhatib said he looks at Web sites for the Pennsylvania maglev project "once every month or so. We're too busy on our own project" to look at the competitor's site frequently.

And he is confident the Baltimore-Washington project will be funded.

"Everything is in line <#201> and we think we stand a very good chance because we connect two major metropolitan cities <#201> and the Baltimore-Washington airport is in the middle," Alkhatib said. "And it will help the region. We feel very good about it."

Potential political clout in Washington is another factor.

But Alkhatib also has hopes for the Pennsylvania project.

"Our hope is both projects get funded at some point," he said.

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