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Maglev would do little to reduce road congestion, says Federal Railroad Administration

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The recently released d­raft environmental impact statement forecasts that a proposed maglev—a magnetic-levitation rail line—would have an insignificant impact on road congestion in the Baltimore-Washington region. The maglev’s ability to reduce car traffic in the region would be far smaller than one part in thirty, the ratio of red to black cars in this image. This information blows up one of the main justifications for this expensive construction project.

 

Introduction

It is unclear if road congestion would improve by a meaningful amount if a magnetic-levitation rail line were built between Baltimore and Washington. Potentially shedding light on this question, a federal regulatory agency reviewed this “maglev” proposal, and its review found that the road-congestion impact from building the maglev would be insignificant. 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.

Vagueness on this point is harmful. It is important to be as precise as possible in describing road-congestion impacts of the proposed Baltimore-Washington maglev. Elected officials and community leaders may have been persuaded or may soon be persuaded to endorse the maglev because of the project’s advertised traffic-reduction ability. A lot of money is at stake—$15 to $17 billion to build the maglev—and the Baltimore-Washington region really does have a road-congestion problem.

The regulatory agency in question is the Federal Railroad Administration. In January 2021, it issued a draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Baltimore-Washington maglev. The present article examines the impact statement’s road-congestion forecasts.

To provide historical context, the present article cites several studies that found that constructing high-speed rail would be unlikely to significantly reduce road congestion. Also relevant is the road-congestion impact that was forecast in 2015 by Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail, the company that wants to build this maglev.

 

Historical Context

There is long-standing doubt about whether high-speed rail (HSR), in general, can significantly reduce road congestion. High-speed rail includes both maglevs and conventional steel-wheel trains. In 2009, the Congressional Research Service wrote the following:

On the question of highway congestion relief, many studies estimate that HSR will have little positive effect because most highway traffic is local and the diversion of intercity trips from highway to rail will be small. (pg. 14)

Years earlier, the Federal Railroad Administration gave a brief explanation of why fast trains are unlikely to reduce roadway traffic by a significant amount:

The ability to divert patrons from existing modes depends not on line-haul times, but on comparative total travel times, which also include access to, egress from, and time spent in stations. The composition of those total travel times varies dramatically among modes…. In any comparison of total timings, auto has an inherent advantage in its door-to-door convenience (avoiding access and terminal time) (FRA 1997, pg. 7-4)

The Federal Railroad Administration’s 2021 draft environment impact statement for the Baltimore-Washington maglev makes no mention of the above-cited studies, but a 2008 report does elaborate on this point:

Automobile travel differs from air or rail travel in that it generally involves door-to-door service, offers greater flexibility in time of departure, and does not require travelers to share space with strangers. Consequently, rail travel must be extremely competitive in other dimensions, such as speed or cost, to attract automobile travelers. (FRA 2008, pg. 6-7)

With this context in mind, we turn to data specific to the proposed Baltimore-Washington maglev.

 

BWRR Testimony

In 2015, Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail (BWRR) testified before the Maryland Public Service Commission about the benefits that would be provided by the maglev that the company wants to build between Baltimore and Washington. BWRR argued that the region’s traffic was bad and getting worse, and BWRR implied that the maglev was an important part of solving the congestion problem.

To support the idea that the maglev would significantly reduce the region’s traffic woes, BWRR stated that the region’s car traffic would increase by 34% over the next 25 years if the maglev were not built. BWRR also stated that operating the maglev would reduce the number of miles that cars were driven in the region by 165 million vehicle-miles a year relative to the no-maglev scenario (Rogers 2015, pg. 11 and 18).

This traffic reduction sounds significant until you do the math, but BWRR’s testimony left out one important data point that is needed to do the math. This data point is available elsewhere: cars are currently driven approximately 44.4 billion vehicle-miles a year in the Baltimore-Washington region (FRA 2021, Chapter 2, pg. 2-7). The quoted figure is in vehicle-miles, which is calculated by counting each mile that a car moves in contrast to passenger-miles, which is calculated by multiplying the number of miles that a car travels by the number of people in it.

Putting BWRR’s numbers together, we can arrive at an estimate of the annual percent increase in regional car traffic without the maglev and the percent offset in car traffic that would occur were the maglev to begin operation. BWRR’s numbers give an average annual increase in car traffic in the Baltimore-Washington region of 1.4% without the maglev (1.4% = 34% ÷ 25). BWRR’s numbers also give an offset of 0.37% less regional car traffic were the maglev operating (0.37%=100%{0.165/44.4}).

Comparing 1.4% to 0.37%, we see that just a few months of the natural increase in the region’s road traffic would erase the traffic-reduction benefit of the maglev (3 months ≈ 12 months · 0.37% ÷ 1.4%). In this way, BWRR data make a mockery of the idea that the maglev would reduce road congestion to a meaningful degree. Why didn’t journalists dig into BWRR’s 2015 testimony years ago and reveal this fact?

Taking a step back, the reason that the maglev would reduce road congestion at all is that some existing car travelers are forecast to switch from car to maglev. In discussing this transportation choice, it would be inaccurate to describe it as a choice between car travel and maglev travel. Instead, a more accurate description would be a choice between either driving directly to the destination or taking a “maglev assisted” trip. Making use of the maglev may involve car travel, including driving to reach the initial maglev station and taking a taxi or car service from the final maglev station to the actual destination.

 

Regional Impact

The maglev’s inability to significantly reduce road-congestion is established by the appendices of the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) that the Federal Railroad Administration published in January 2021.

The best place to start may be the DEIS estimate of the maglev’s impact on car traffic in the entire Baltimore-Washington region. The region’s current car traffic is 44.4 billion vehicle-miles per year (44.4 = 25.2 + 19.2, Chapter 2, pg. 2-7). The implied change in car traffic during the next 25 years if the maglev were not built is approximately 28±5%, given that the DEIS states that the region’s population and employment will increase by 23% and 33%, respectively (28% = {23% + 33%} ÷ 2, Chapter 2, pg. 2-2). The DEIS states that maglev operation would reduce baseline car traffic by 316.1 million vehicle-miles per year (Appendix D2, Table D2-3, pg. A-3). Here and elsewhere in the present article, the DEIS estimate is quoted for just the Camden Yards station option rather than both of the Baltimore station options, in a effort to avoid a confusing mass of numbers.

Putting these data together, the regional road traffic would increase by an average of 1.12% each year (1.12% = 28% ÷ 25). If the maglev were operating, regional car traffic would be reduced by 0.71% below the no-maglev car traffic baseline (0.71% = 100%{0.3161 ÷ 44.4} ). In other words, in about 8 months, the natural increase in the region’s car traffic would erase the congestion-reduction power of the maglev (8 months ≈ 12 months · 0.71% ÷ 1.12%). To visualize this sort of small and short-lived reduction in road congestion, compare the dotted orange line and solid black line in Figure 1 of the present article.

If the maglev’s ability to reduce regional road congestion were erased after 8 months, the maglev would be an ineffective solution, given that construction would cost $15 to $17 billion (Appendix D4, Table D4-8, pg. D-21). The exact cost is unclear. There appears to be a typographical error in the DEIS executive summary because it states a lower construction cost of $10–13 billion, but even that amount would be a huge cost for such a small impact on road congestion (Executive Summary, Table ES43-2, pg. ES-20). It is unclear from the DEIS and media reports what fraction of the construction cost would be borne by the US taxpayer, by private investors, or by a foreign government seeking to promote its maglev technology.

The DEIS forecast for regional road-congestion impact is summarized in row 1 of Table 1 of the present article. Comparing row 1 and row 4, one sees that the forecasted impact in the 2021 DEIS is approximately double the forecasted impact in BWRR’s 2015 testimony that was discussed in the previous section of the present article. Both forecasts represent small and ephemeral congestion reductions.

 

 

Corridor Impact

In the vicinity of the maglev stations and track, car traffic is forecast to worsen even though car traffic is forecast to improve slightly over the whole Baltimore-Washington region. To reach this conclusion, the 2021 draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) examines the narrow corridor that includes the length of the maglev track and a swath of land extending at least a quarter mile away from the track and in some places extending several miles away. The DEIS defines the boundaries of this corridor and refers to it as the “mesoscale subarea” (Appendix D9, pg. D9-27).

In this corridor, the current car traffic is 7.979 million vehicle-miles per day, forecast to increase to 8.530 million vehicle-miles per day over 18 years if the maglev were not built (Appendix D9, Table D9-9, pg. D9-50). This increase works out to an average increase of 0.38% each year (0.38% = 6.9% ÷ 18 and 6.9% = 100%{8.530 – 7.979}÷7.979).

If the maglev were built, the DEIS forecasts that car traffic within the corridor would actually be greater, not less, than in the baseline no-maglev scenario. Operating the maglev would generate additional car traffic in the corridor: 37.3 thousand vehicle-miles per day (Appendix D9, Table D9-9, pg. D9-50). These values are summarized in row 2 of Table 1 of the present article, with miles per day converted to miles per year by multiplying by 365.25 days per year.

The maglev would make road congestion worse in the corridor most likely because the corridor contains the proposed maglev stations. Car traffic could worsen considerably near a maglev station as people divert from driving directly to their various destinations and instead all converge on the station. The next section examines this kind of local impact.

 

Point Impact

The 2021 draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) states that the maglev would worsen road congestion in some locations and improve it slightly in others. The maglev would worsen traffic jams near maglev stations while reducing traffic on the stretch of Interstate 95 that most people use when driving between Baltimore and Washington. These impacts are described below in more detail.

Discussing the proposed downtown Washington maglev station at Mount Vernon Square, the 2021 DEIS states unambiguously that nearby traffic would get worse because of the maglev. The DEIS forecasts that customers traveling by car to and from this station, when added to existing road traffic, would cause motorists to experience intolerable delays near the station (Chapter 4.2, Table 4.2-6, pg. 4.2-25). To help us decode the relevant table, a footnote directs us to interpret a grade of “E” or “F” as representing intolerable delay. The congestion would become so severe in the vicinity of Mount Vernon Square that the DEIS recommends measures such as “encourage drivers through public outreach efforts to choose alternative routes in order to avoid the station area to the degree possible” (Chapter 4.2, pg. 4.2-26).

The DEIS text appears somewhat garbled about the traffic impacts near the proposed maglev station at Baltimore’s Camden Yards. Appendix D2 states, “the data in the table shows significant deterioration in traffic operations” due to the maglev, but some of the entries in the cited table show only minor impact. One could speculate that this table and the associated text were in flux shortly before the DEIS was published because a footnote states, “additional coordination with the project sponsor is underway” (Appendix D2, Table D2-18, pg. A7-29).

The just-cited Appendix D2 data for near maglev stations is reflected to varying degrees of accuracy in the body of the DEIS. In Chapter 4.2, one page states that the maglev’s traffic impact would be “positive,” while a few pages later, the text states that the impact would be “minimal” (Chapter 4.2, pg. 4.2-8 and 4.2-20).

In its evaluation of Interstate 95, the 2021 DEIS describes what may be close the largest-possible car-traffic reduction that the maglev could produce. Specifically, the DEIS describes the traffic impact at a point along Interstate 95 near Elkridge, a location that most car travel between Baltimore and Washington passes through.

The DEIS finds a rather small reduction in car traffic on Interstate 95 at Route 100 in Elkridge. At this location, current traffic is 218,700 cars per day (Appendix D2, Table D2-16, pg. A5-26). The DEIS forecasts that, were the maglev not built, cars per day would increase by 0.16% each year at this location. The 0.16%-per-year increase comes from the DEIS-supplied 4.07% increase in 25 years (0.16% = 4.07% ÷ 25 and 4.07% = 100%{227.6 – 218.7}÷218.7). The DEIS explicitly states that operating the maglev would reduce car traffic below the baseline level by an offset of 0.36% (Appendix D2, Table D2-16, pg. A5-26). These values are summarized in row 3 of Table 1 of the present article.

The DEIS forecast for this point on Interstate 95 means that 2 years after the maglev begins operation, car traffic would be back where it had been when the maglev began operation. From then on, car traffic would be worse than before the maglev began operation. Two years is a brief respite from worsening traffic considering the great cost of building the maglev.

 

Implications of these Results

The present article examines road-congestion data both in the 2021 draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) and also in the 2015 testimony of Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail. The data in these documents establish that there would be an insignificant and fleeting reduction in regional road congestion as a result of building and operating the proposed Baltimore-Washington maglev.

If this finding became widely known, it would hamper maglev marketing efforts because, if the prospect of reducing road congestion were removed, then negative aspects of the project would make a bigger impression. Negative aspects include a construction cost of $15 to $17 billion and a ticket price of $40 to $80 per person one way (construction cost: Appendix D4, Table D4-8, pg. D-21; ticket price: Appendix D2, pg. D-108).

This finding also raises questions about the executive summary of the 2021 DEIS. For one thing, the executive summary fails to mention the relevant data in the appendices that establish that the maglev would do little to improve regional road congestion.

Second, the DEIS executive summary fails to mention that the DEIS Project Need section emphasizes transportation delays as the central need that the DEIS is intended to addressed. To quote the Project Need section, action is “needed to address the following transportation issues and challenges:

  • …The Baltimore-Washington region makes up one of the largest and densest population centers in the United States….
  • Travel demand will continue to increase….
  • Inadequate capacity of the existing transportation network” (Chapter 2, pg. 2-2)

The Federal Railroad Administration would find it difficult to delete the above-quoted text because the DEIS is tied to the notice of intent published in the Federal Register (25 Nov 2016, pg. 85,320). The notice of intent has its own Purpose and Need section that states, “demand on the transportation infrastructure between Baltimore and Washington will continue to increase… thereby decreasing the level of service…. As congestion increases… continued economic development will be impacted.”

Third, the DEIS executive summary lacks any quantitative statement about the road-congestion impact of the proposed maglev.

The word “congestion” is used only twice in the executive summary. The executive summary states that the DEIS focuses on the Baltimore-Washington region because transportation congestion is severe here, a point on which we can all agree. The executive summary also states that the maglev would enable people to “bypass congested locations.” This statement is an unacceptably weak substitute for stating a quantitative forecast of the maglev’s impact on regional road congestion—especially considering that the executive summary could have quoted the relevant forecasts found in the DEIS appendices.

The executive summary would more effectively communicate road-congestion impacts if it included a schematic diagram. Specifically, a diagram similar to Figure 1 of the present article. Figure 1 depicts how the maglev would not reduce regional road congestion in absolute terms and how the maglev would do little to slow the rate at which regional road congestion continues to worsen.

Figure 1 depicts a hypothetical 1% annual increase in car traffic were the maglev not built (solid black line). This percentage increase is comparable to the baseline car-traffic growth rates listed in Table 1 of the present article. In Figure 1, the dashed orange line depicts the DEIS forecast for the regional impact of the maglev: an offset of -0.64% from the baseline no-maglev scenario. The dotted red line depicts the DEIS forecast for the impact of the maglev along the corridor that includes the maglev stations and track and their immediate neighborhood. As discussed earlier in the present article, the DEIS-estimated corridor impact is an offset of +0.47% from the baseline no-maglev scenario.

Within reason, the exact percentages used in Figure 1 do not matter because the conclusion would remain the same. After no more than a few years—or perhaps only a few months—of operating the proposed maglev, car traffic would become worse than it had been before the maglev was built.

 

Impact of maglev on car trafficFigure 1. Schematic representation of the proposed Baltimore-Washington maglev’s impact on road congestion based on data in the Federal Railroad Administration’s 2021 draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). In a narrow corridor along the maglev route, the DEIS forecasts that the maglev would cause car traffic to increase (red dotted line) relative to the baseline no-maglev scenario (black solid line). In a wider region, the DEIS forecasts that the maglev would reduce car traffic (orange dotted line) relative to the baseline no-maglev scenario, but car traffic would still increase in absolute terms.

Conclusion

Based on the 2021 draft environmental impact statement (DEIS), it is clear that the proposed Baltimore-Washington maglev would do little to improve regional road congestion. By altering traffic patterns without significantly reducing the number of cars on the road, the maglev is likely to worsen road congestion in some places, such as near the maglev stations in downtown Washington and Baltimore. The relevant data are published in the DEIS appendices, but the DEIS executive summary does not reflect these data.

Traffic jams really do impact quality of life in the Baltimore-Washington region, but it is odd that the DEIS would focus on one, somewhat eccentric proposal for addressing this problem and entirely ignore other, more common-sense approaches.

The 2021 DEIS fails to provide decision-makers and the public with what they need: a comparison of the proposed maglev’s effectiveness at solving the region’s congestion problem relative to the effectiveness of other solutions. The DEIS provides no evidence that the maglev would be more cost effective than, for example, promoting teleworking, modifying the interchanges that produce the worst rush-hour bottlenecks, or funding projects that help create affordable and desirable neighborhoods close to employment centers.

 

References

Congressional Research Service, 2009: High Speed rail (HRS) in the United States. D. Randall, J. Frittelli, and W. J. Mallett, Report to Congress, 7-5700, R40973, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40973.pdf.

Federal Railroad Administration, 1993 Sept.: Final Report on the National Maglev Initiative (NMI). Technical Report DOT/FRA/NMI-93/03. 121 pp., https://railroads.dot.gov/elibrary/final-report-national-maglev-initiative.

Federal Railroad Administration, 1997: High-speed Ground Transportation for America. 182 pp., https://railroads.dot.gov/sites/fra.dot.gov/files/fra_net/1177/cfs0997all2.pdf.

Federal Railroad Administration, 2008: Analysis Of The Benefits Of High-Speed Rail On The Northeast Corridor. Report CC-2008-091, memorandum from D. Tornquist, 19 pp., https://www.oig.dot.gov/library-item/30401.

Federal Railroad Administration, 2021 January: Draft Environmental Impact Statement and Draft Section 4(f) Evaluation, Baltimore-Washington Superconducting Maglev Project. https://bwmaglev.info/index.php/project-documents/deis.

Federal Register, 2016 Nov 25: Environmental Impact Statement for the Baltimore-Washington Superconducting Maglev (SCMAGLEV) Project, Between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, DC. pp. 85319–85321, https://bwmaglev.info/index.php/project-documents/reports.

Rogers, W., 2015 April 17: Direct testimony of Wayne L. Rogers, Case #9363. Maryland Public Service Commission, 23 pp., https://www.psc.state.md.us/search-results/?q=9363&x.x=20&x.y=20&search=all&search=case.


About the Author: Owen Kelley has a science background, and in his free time, he enjoys exploring and writing about the forests around Greenbelt.  In recent years, he has written several articles about the proposed Baltimore Washington maglev.

Disclaimer: Kelley is writing in his capacity as a individual citizen examining a non-partisan issue of interest to the public. If errors are suspected, please contact him at okelley@gmu.edu.

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