Is Maglev the Answer?

John J. Walters Jul 17, 2012

Judging by the way our government spends its transportation budget, legislators are holding out some vain hope that people will simply cut back on driving and start using alternative means of transportation if we simply provide them with that option. Maryland, for example, spends a disproportionate amount (over 50%) of our transportation money on public transport even though less than 5% of the state uses it on a regular basis.

I guess their argument is that we need to invest in a decent public transport infrastructure before many more people can even consider using it. But we haven’t seen a real increase in the percentage of Marylanders who use public transport since 1980. Meanwhile, people keep on buying cars, moving to the suburbs, and spending hours (and hours) in traffic.

It may not be optimal, but it seems like driving is how people want to commute. After all: it beats living in the city and worrying about crime 24-7 just so you can take a bicycle or a bus to work. And perhaps we should encourage this. Planes, trains, and buses all receive a government subsidy per mile traveled; automobiles alone provide revenue through gas taxes and other fees.

It would certainly be cheaper to stop trying to change the public’s mind and just worry about funding road repairs and expansions. Especially when there are private companies that may be willing to step in and take over an industry that has been kept afloat mainly through government subsidies for decades.

Right now, I can hop a Megabus to New York City for about $25. Or, I can buy a ticket with Amtrak for anywhere between $80 and $200. Both trips will take about the same amount of time. If I’m really in a hurry, I can take a flight and be there in an hour, but that’ll cost me a bit more than $200 (though, surprisingly not much more).

But what if, instead of dumping more and more money into Amtrak, we invested in something like Maglev? Imagine: a train that can bring you from DC to NYC in an hour – or Baltimore City in 15 minutes! Think that might have the power to get people out of their beloved cars?

If we want to change America’s reliance on automobiles, we have two ways to do it. We can either make gas more and more expensive (either through taxation or by passing up opportunities to drill domestically) or we can provide people with decent alternatives. So far, the public has spoken and spotty bus or light rail service isn’t cutting it.

Too little is known about the east coast Maglev project right now to pass judgment, but it is something that gets even a gear-head like me excited.