High Speed Rail

Proposed Baltimore-to-D.C. Maglev Train Would Cost as Much as Building 1,500 Miles of Highway

The $15 billion project would connect two cities that are only 35 miles apart. That's $420 million per mile-if it stays on-budget.


Ingram Publishing/Newscom

High-speed rail boondoggles aren't just for California anymore.

A proposal to build a high-speed maglev train between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., took a step toward enaction this week with the announcement of three potential routes for the rail line, UrbanTurf reports. The Federal Railroad Administration, the Maryland Department of Transportation, and other agencies involved in the project are planning a series of public meetings to gather citizens' input on the project.

Here's my input: I can't believe this is something that's seriously under consideration.

For now, there is no official estimate of how much the train will cost, but the website for the Baltimore-Washington Superconducting Maglev Project includes a projected cost of between $10 billion and $15 billion. Even if you give them the benefit of the doubt about the final price tag—something you probably shouldn't do, given how much other high-speed rail projects have ended up costing—that still raises some serious questions about the fiscal sanity of building this thing.

$15 billion is an amount so astronomically large that it is difficult to comprehend. So let's consider the relative costs of building this train versus, say, a new four-lane highway between D.C. and Baltimore.

The proposed maglev train doesn't have a precise route yet, but the routes under consideration are all in the neighborhood of 35 miles long. That means the maglev would cost about $420 million per mile.

According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, a national trade group, it costs about $10 million per mile to build a four-lane highway through a suburban or urban area, which is how most of the land between Washington and Baltimore would be classified.

Eric Boehm; Sources: baltimorewashingtonscmaglevproject.com/index.php/faqs; www.artba.org/about/faq

Here's an alternative visualization. In this graphic, we are comparing how many miles of Maglev train can be built with $15 billion versus how many miles of four-lane highway could be built with an equal amount of funding.

Eric Boehm; Sources: baltimorewashingtonscmaglevproject.com/index.php/faqs; www.artba.org/about/faq

This is insanity.

Also worth considering: Resurfacing an existing four-lane highway costs about $1.25 million per mile, meaning that the maglev's $15 billion price tag could be used instead to resurface about 12,000 miles of roadway. That's more than a third of all roads in the state of Maryland.

One more way to visualize this fiscal craziness: The WMTA, which runs buses and subways in Washington, has an expected total operating budget of $1.7 billion next year. The Maryland Transit Administration, which runs the Baltimore subway, various light-rail lines around the city, and the MARC train between Baltimore and D.C., has a total operating budget of $787 million this year.

For the cost of building this train—not operating and maintaining, but merely building it—you could fund both the WTMA and the MTA through 2024 without asking taxpayers or riders to pay a single dime toward either system.

That probably sounds pretty good to commuters in D.C., who have been squeezed by the WMATA with fare increases and service cuts in the past two years. A functional subway system in the nation's capital would certainly serve more people than a super-expensive train between downtown D.C and downtown Baltimore.

After all, exactly how useful would a train like this be? Most of the (admittedly horrific) traffic in the D.C. metro area is the result of commuters going back and forth between the city itself and the suburbs. Another train between D.C. and Baltimore—did I mention there already is a non-maglev train between the cities?—would be of limited utility for most residents of the greater Baltimore-D.C. metro area, even with a stop at the airport. It would likely do little to get cars off the road. Anyone needing to travel farther up the East Coast would still have to drive, or use Amtrak, or fly.

The planners behind the maglev project say this would be the first leg in a train line that would eventually connect Washington to New York City or even Boston. But those other parts of the project won't be built until the 2040s, according to the project's website (and holy moly, can you imagine how expensive the rest of the line would be?). Until then, this would be—sorry in advance, Baltimore—a train to nowhere.

Some money has already been flushed away on this idea: The federal government issued a $27.8 million grant in 2015 for the project's planning and preliminary engineering. The project is soaking taxpayers in foreign countries too, thanks to the Japanese government's decision to put up $5 billion in support. Maglev trains are already used in Japan and Japanese companies would be well positioned to bid on this project, if it gets that far.

That's a lot of money, but it's nothing compared to how much could end up being spent on this boondoggle.

This piece has been updated to correct the number of highway miles able to be built with $15 billion.

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  1. From someone who lives between the 2 cities this is completely unnecessary. There is a lot of traffic in the area but the problem is not getting between the cities nor are there very many that actually go the full distance from one to the other. The problem is getting around either of them in the suburbs and going inside either beltway. The 2 beltways are overloaded at rush hour as are the roads heading into the cities.
    A complete waste.

    1. As someone who also lives there I totally agree. Guess what though we will all have the joys of this thing barreling through our neighborhoods at all hours day and night.

      1. People will complain and the speed will be capped at 45 miles per hour thereby eliminating much of the rationale for this monstrosity after which people will realize that it was never about getting people places so much as just another excuse to enrich special interests.

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    2. They need to build a new outer beltway that would allow trucks and through traffic on I 95 to bypass both cities. Then they need to expand the existing beltway by at least two lanes going each way.

      1. 81 is kinda that but yes they need one a bit closer starting North of Baltimore and going a bit around probably a bit west of Manassas maybe around Dulles. I have been saying something similar to what you said since I moved out there.

        1. The Intercounty Connector actually could serve this function and if they ever extend it into Virginia to connect with route 234. What’s stopping it? The proggies in Montgomery County who want to force everyone into the Metro or busses.

          1. But Metro is awesome!

          2. except for them of course they will still drive. The same people who would ensure this thing won’t be spoiling the quaint quiet neighborhoods.

      2. Better to enlarge 95 south of DC down to Richmond. It is a parking lot at all hours of the day, on weekends, and at night. The HOV lanes in the middle are a true waste of space that is supposed to “nudge” people into car pools, and I guess that they do succeed, sort-of, with a lot of “slug carriers”. But for the vast majority of people who cannot use car pools, because of their work schedules, they are useless.

    3. How about simply cutting the government in half which would get a huge chunk of people out of DC? Save massive amounts of money and reduce traffic. You can thank me now.

  2. I can definitely imagine that a lot of D.C. residents want to get out of town fast, but how many downtown Baltimore residents really want to commute into D.C. every day?

    1. Not that many and those who do are most likely on the richer side of life. SO we will have luxury travel for the elites plowing through working class suburbs at all hours day and night paid for by those same people.

  3. Boondoggles are what governments do best.

    1. Baltimore is already about as decrepit as North Haverbrook, so why not?

    2. We really need a high tech solution that will bypass many of the problems inherent in land based transportation systems.


  4. Maybe if we call it the “Stonewall Jackson Memorial Maglev Train for Mexicans and Muslims”, it will be killed on a bipartisan basis.

    1. Robert E Lee-Muhammed Coal & Rubber Band powered train

    2. Robert E Lee-Muhammed Coal & Rubber Band powered train

  5. WHY IS AMERICA SO FAR BEHIND ON PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION? It’s 2017. Do you know that people here still own cars?

    1. They are trying people into good, solid 19th Century technology. That’s progress!

    2. behind or ahead? Have you ever seen the airports in europe’s most populated country? Charleston, WV’s airport is more modern and has more gates than the second largest city in europe–St. Petersburg. It’s more like a bus station. There’s another cultural issue–Americans like their freedom of movement which probably spawned from living in a really big country. Highways provide more access to more people and freedom than choo choos. What’s archaic is the ongoing argument that America needs to match europe’s mass transit system, which is bankrupt and dilapidated and obsolete even there.

  6. “The federal government issued a $27.8 million grant in 2015 ”

    Nothing left to cut. Why do you hate the thousands of poor kids in Bawlmore who won’t get a chance to see this train and dream of STEM careers? And the women who will not have any health care if they can’t maglev to Johns Hopkins?

  7. Building 1500 miles of roads would allow people to travel when and where they like. We can’t have that. People should only travel when and were central planners think they should. Progressives hate roads and have such a bizarre obsession with trains because they hate freedom and love control

    1. Cars are bad because they are killing the planet with the burning of fossil fuels. They are especially bad because more often then not there is only one person in them. Trains are much more efficient as far as the amount of fuel used. Though not when you factor in the fact that they rarely have more than one occupant.

      1. And when you factor in the cost to build them. The pollution created by building these things and generating the power to run them is not real pollution I guess.

      2. And this train fixes that how? Cuts 0.1% of the traffic out so the 1% can sail between cities while us poorer schlubs are on the highway. If they were concerned about what you’re talking about they’d just set up a regular railway which is far cheaper. For fuck’s sake it’s only 35 miles. It’s not even logical

        1. And it will be plowing through our neighborhoods to boot.

        2. For fuck’s sake it’s only 35 miles. It’s not even logical

          They built a less than 2 mile light rail line in DC that still hasn’t attracted 10% of the riders they said it would, so probably will end up costing as much as the maglev.

      3. We need to work toward much more efficient uses of transportation.

      4. But trains only work when you live right next to the train station, and all your trips are to somewhere that is also located right next to the train station. Otherwise, you have to figure out how to get from the train station to your destination, which involves individual land transportation, and that means a car.

        I used to live in Harpers Ferry, WV, and my mother-in-law lived in Westchester County, NY, north of NYC. No matter that mode of transportation I used (car, airplane, train), it took me 5 hours to get to her house. With one of those modes, I had a vehicle at the other end for no cost. The other two modes required a rental car. I could also use my pickup for the trip, and be able to do all sorts of chores around her house that involved hauling stuff. Not tru for air and trains. And, with my own vehicle, I could stop along the way back and forth, at my leisure, to pick up tasty stuff in Amish country or do other shopping. Very limited opportunities with an airplane or by train. (although I could stop in NYC if I took the train)

        So, why would I want a Maglev that would cost more, maybe save me a few hours, but still require me to drive me car from my home to the station, and the rent a car at the other end?

    2. You don’t need to build 1500 miles of roads though. Just build 5 new 35-mile 4-lane highways for 1.75 billion dollars and don’t spend the rest.

    3. We really should rededicate the term ‘Metrosexual’. The kind of man it currently describes is adequately explained by the word ‘Cad’. OTOH, ‘Metrosexual’ seems perfectly suited to the kind of Progressive politician who appears to get sexually excited by large passenger rail projects.

      1. Can I borrow that?

        1. Oh, feel free. The more these train happy idiots get ridiculed for their obsession, the more ridiculous projects we can get – you should pardon the expression – derailed.

          I recall a REASON article from some years back that made the point that one of the reasons passanger rail is so spotty 8n this country is that our rail network is optimized for freight. To run both effectively we would have to double the amout of track, amd probably force new right-of-ways. So grandiose plans like the California boondoggle start out with the happy assed assumption that they will run on new track, and get downgraded to running on existing track (interfering with freight),and so they won’t actually run at the promised speeds…..


          1. Or sacrifice our freight infrastructure. We realized unlike Europe that rail is best for freight. We have an unrivaled freight network in the US.

      2. Thing is progs in general have some twisted fetish for Urban centers and the pedestrian life style. They tell us simpletons our car centric lifestyle is evil and they brag how enlightened people walk or take public transit everywhere. They talk up how sophisticated Europeans embrace the culture. Now of course they ignore the fact that Europeans don’t drive cause the government makes it insanely expensive. The brag about some distant past with golden cities as the hub of culture and all good things. Where kids played in parks and people all lived happy lives like something out of a fairy tale. Then speak of the evils of white flight that ended this supposed Urban Utopia. Now all know cities were never what they describe. The were always bastions of crime, political corruption and poverty. They know that the worst thing to happen to the progressive movement was cars and the suburbs who sprang up because of them.

        1. Yeah, they can’t ever forget the way the Common Man left them at the altar after WWII. They were so SURE that the growth in accepted government control was going to usher in their planned Paradise. The Working Man would live in Bauhaus apartments, take public transportation, and go to lectures in the evenings. But the Working Man had just put up with five years of being lined up, counted off, marched away, and shot at. He’d had enough of Grand Plans. He wanted a split level ranch house in the suburbs, a car with tail fins, and a tv set. And by and large, he got them, and the
          Rogressives could go hang. At least in the U.S.. In Europe the planners more or less got their way, and a beautiful mess they made of it, too. And the Progressives in this country just can’t understand why the Common Man over here doesn’t want to live with Planning Councils, dreary National Health, and the BBC.

        2. Don’t be so sure. In Europe everyone walks because population density is so much higher and distances are so much shorter than in the US. If the milk store is a few blocks away, you don’t need a car to get there.

          And suburbs came about specifically because asshole social engineering bureaucrats came up with restrictive zoning ordinances which deeply eroded the notion of private property. The artificial separation between residential and commercial areas, the ridiculous distances between destinations, even the toxic lawns did not spring up from people’s desires, but rather from bureaucrats’ edicts, regulations, and needless meddling.

  8. Shortsighted, considering the potential of driverless cars to function as mass transit/virtual rail at high speeds. Money would be better spent on adding driverless only lanes to existing highways, showing some innovation and foresight.

    1. We are years away from driverless cars being practal at all much less at high speed. Just build the roads.

      1. I don’t think fully driverless cars will ever take off bc most people want to have some control over where they are going.

        1. Type or speak the address into the car’s computer. You have full control.

        2. I don’t think they’ll take off as anything other than a glorified train where your car is slaved into a network of other vehicles that take a predetermined path. Why do I believe that? Because computers are absolutely fucking terrible at predicting human behavior.

          Frankly, a computer still can’t tell the difference between a toddler and a road cone. Saying ‘we’re almost there’ means you’ve been reading promo materials from Google and Uber, I presume.

      2. Driverless cars are already practical. People are just scared of them, even though they are as safe as human driven cars already.

        Build a driverless-only highway and they will be far safer than regular cars.

        1. But no quicker and hardly used.

        2. False, they are not already practical nor are they just as safe as a human driver.

          1. Wait, I see you added a condition of building redundant side-by-side infrastructure just for them so you might be right if we double or triple our infrastructure costs to build parallel systems.

  9. Eric,

    Check out the Reason archives from around 2000-2001. I wrote an article for you guys about an identical proposal all the way back then. It makes NO sense. Maglev is a replacement for short and medium haul flights. It’s not a commuter line. Trips of 200-400 miles make sense. A Baltimore-DC route can’t even get up to speed, especially if it stops at BWI. If it IS part of a longer route, say from Richmond to New York, stopping for five minutes halfway between DC and Baltimore totally defeats the purpose of the technology. Because nobody can get off a train moving 300 MPH. It needs, you know, to stop.

    1. Ironically Maglev makes sense in places you normally don’t think about trains working; out West where the distances allow the extra speed to really make a difference. A maglev train from say Houston to Dallas or Chicago to LA might make sense. But between cities on the I-95 corridor is idiotic

      1. Even out west it isn’t really that practical for rail of any kind. Very little travel in the US is city center to city center. People don’t go from LA or Dallas to Chicago they go Bakersfield or Plano to Chicago or something similar. You still would have to transit to the train station. Only place rail travel works is the NE corridor. But like you said it won’t work for maglev cause they would never get up to speed.

        1. I agree. It just makes even less sense back east. The funny thing is that at some point they will develop real super sonic transport or personal aircraft and render rail completely obsolete. That will likely happen right about the time they get a bunch of Maglevs up and running

          1. We really need some way people can work remotely, so they don’t have to travel. For jobs requiring more manual labor, we need personal robots that can be operated remotely by the worker. This will cut down tremendously on unnecessary travel.

    2. What about ejector seats?

  10. RE: Proposed Baltimore-to-D.C. Maglev Train Would Cost as Much as Building 1,500 Miles of Highway
    The $15 billion project would connect two cities that are only 35 miles apart. That’s $420 million per mile?if it stays on-budget.

    1. Well, yeah, you’re going to have a needless boondongle project from the government. Otherwise both political parties wouldn’t be able to fill the coffers of their cronies.
    2. $15 billion dollars is a cheap price to keep the politicians in the back pocket of the politically connected. After all, you can bet both will get disgustingly rich off our tax dollars from this political abortion.
    3. Stay on budget?
    If you believe that, I’ll sell you a bridge I have in Brooklyn.

    1. Stay on budget? LOL

      Remember the two mile I-93 tunnels in Boston? It cost almost as much as the 26 mile tunnels across the English Channel!

  11. I lived in Baltimore about 20 years ago and they were talking about a maglev train to DC then. Haven’t heard about it for a while, but bad ideas are like zombies so I’m not surprised.

  12. no one ever considers: there is no real economic gain from moving only people that quickly. If all these trains were also freight, maybe they might he worth it, but if it’s just people, who the hell needs to go from one city to another that quickly? What economic efficiencies would be gained? I’ve heard that the already existing Acela in the NE corridor is only really useful to lawyers, and really only specifically federal case lawyers or lawyers dealing with multiple trans-regional firms.

    Even assuming you could make commuting between two cities feasible all of a sudden, who the hell would it help? What person is even that useful that there is any significant gain by the fact that now he can commute to a new city? Very very few people would be this useful in a way that is rarely duplicated region to region. Most people just work, that’s it. Even obscure industries with few people in them (I’m a machinist) have plenty of human capital everywhere

    1. This and most people can telecommute and have conferences over Skype now. So no need to move people that quickly. What slows freight down is local distribution-I have tracked packages shipped by UPS and they often sit in the local warehouse for a day at least before they are delivered to me, so maglev definitely won’t help with that.

    2. It would help a very few people who work in Washington and make enough money to afford the commute to Baltimore and would rather live in Baltimore. So like ten people

      1. No doubt the Baltimore city gubmint would like nothing more than to boost their tax base by attracting some of the DC yuppies, so I’m sure this is a selling point of the maglev along with the grants to build it.

  13. Not everyone can afford to pay for a car. Everyone gets their own FREE gubbermint high speed train.

  14. If the train goes from Baltimore, stops in DC, then goes straight into the Atlantic, I’ll start a GoFundMe today.

  15. Has something happened to the Washington Metro, that Congress wants a new toy train set?

  16. …if it stays on-budget.

    Heh. That’s a good one.

  17. Crap like this is one of the reasons I left Baltimore. They have no issue spending money on this and act like it will help something (what exactly, I do not know), but turn a blind eye to years of 200-300+ murders, rampant drug addiction, schools that under perform by wide margins despite being the most well funded in the state etc… Baltimore is a terrible place to live if you care about human life and your neighbors. The white progressives there do not give two craps about the murder, crime, drug addiction and racism in their city. Happy to be gone from there.

    1. Made worse is that the rest of the state pays for Baltimore and Montgomery County’s boondoggles and the crime spreads out from there.

    2. I’m sorry to read this. Baltimore was a nice city to me in the late 1970’s. OTOH, at the time I was a big, long haired, bearded weirdo, so maybe I got left alone.

    3. But you gotta love the cheap bars, cheap rent (if you don’t mind your apt/car getting broken into at least once a month), and ease of getting laid (if you don’t mind an STD).

  18. All aboard The Crack-Rock Express!

  19. It is WMATA.
    There are already two MARC lines connecting Baltimore and Washington.
    Just extend Metro up to BWI. At least that doesn’t create a new money pit.

  20. “a projected cost of between $10 billion and $15 billion.”

    In reality it will probably end up costing the sum of both?$35 billion. But hey, when you are spending other peoples money nothing is too expensive.

  21. What? No claims on how every dollar spent on zippy choo-choos will generate 84 guzillion dollars in residual economic activity? The bearded sage of Princeton has a sad.

  22. I’m all for high technology so long as it is economically feasible. This most certainly AIN’T!

  23. This isn’t insanity, it’s plain old corruption. The whole point of projects like this is to ladle out taxpayers’ money to the politicians’ cronies.


  24. Easier to upgrade some track, weld together, straighten some corridors and then be able to run trains up to 125mph along the corridor. It’s only 39 miles so for that much smaller investment, you can run the entire line in under 30 minutes assuming you average just under 100 mph. Express morning trains could probably do it in close to 20 minutes.

    If the Feds did this with the entire Amtrak line, especially Northeast, their revenues would more than offset the incremental investments, but alas, the draw is always towards big shiny projects instead of boring incremental improvements that can add lots of value.

  25. Here’s my input: I can’t believe this is something that’s seriously under consideration.

  26. “This is insanity.”
    Not if it’s the taxpayer’s money and you’re buying union votes, it isn’t.

  27. If any two cities need better mass transit it’s Baltimore and DC; however, as even toll roads and other user fee modes of transportation are proving, commuters would rather sit in bumper to bumper traffic than pay an extra $5 a day to move around quicker.

  28. Here’s my input: I can’t believe this is something that’s seriously under consideration.

    Are you new here?

    As the Imperial Capital expands to Baltimore, Imperial Apparatchiks are being inconvenienced by having to drive back and forth on the highways with the peasants.

    With the peasants!

  29. It should be mentioned that the current project is supposed to be paid for by a private Japanese company, essentially as a proof of concept of the technology and as the foundation of a larger line (this part was mentioned). The current proposal is not that the line be constructed or operated at public expense. I’m not saying this should be taken as face value, and I’m skeptical that it will be honored in the breach, but the article should make reference to this. Either way, the money that would have been spent by the company for rail isn’t going to be spent on highways instead.

    If we libertarians are for private infrastructure we should consider this project in that light.

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