BOWIE – Residents and officials in Bowie are emphatic: they do not want a high-speed train line cutting through their city. On July 10, the Bowie City Council hosted a special meeting to hear from representatives of Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail (BWRR), the private company involved in the proposal to construct a high-speed commuter rail […]
BOWIE – Residents and officials in Bowie are emphatic: they do not want a high-speed train line cutting through their city.
On July 10, the Bowie City Council hosted a special meeting to hear from representatives of Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail (BWRR), the private company involved in the proposal to construct a high-speed commuter rail between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. The line would use magnetic levitation technology and, supporters say, help reduce traffic, greenhouse gas emissions and airplane crowding and grow the economy.
“The vision is the fastest train in the world,” said David Henley, project director with BWRR. “Even if you’re not lucky enough to get economic benefit from, say, a job or spinoff from that job, the air will be just a whole lot better place, all that reduced greenhouse gas, all that reduced carbon monoxide, all that reduced nitrogen oxide, with people getting out of cars. That’s a huge benefit for everybody.”
The project is funded by both public and private-sector partners. So far, about $35 million has been spent ($7 million by BWRR and $27.6 million as a grant from the Federal Railway Administration (FRA)).
The federal grant will pay for the environment impact statement process, which includes studying alignments and preliminary engineering. To date, walk-throughs of the study area have been conducted to develop engineering feasibility documents, financial feasibility has been demonstrated through a peer-reviewed ridership and revenue study, a technology transfer has been negotiated with Central Japan Railway Company, and the Maryland Public Service Commission has granted a rail franchise.
Henley said if the project is approved, the earliest construction would begin is late 2019, and that it would take five-to-seven years to build and another two of rigorous testing before opening for service.
The area under study is a 40-mile by 10-mile radius spanning four counties, including the northern parts of Prince George’s. Several of the proposed alignments would cut into or near the city of Bowie, leaving residents concerned about their homes, parks and health.
Twenty-three residents came out to speak against the project, citing the losses of homes (as many as 263 by some estimates), tax revenue, business opportunities and the sense of place for Bowie. Others raised questions about the potential health impacts of the magnetic field, as well as what they see as the lack of proper notification and outreach from the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), the state agency taking the lead on the environment impact studies for the project.
“I’ve focused my comments on Bowie, but the points I’m making apply to the whole affected area,” said resident Al Bauman, whose home is not in the area impacted by the study but spoke in solidarity with the residents who do live close by. “There’s absolutely no benefit to any communities in Prince George’s or Anne Arundel counties. The impact that the taking of the residences, businesses, parks, churches or whatever in the way is too high a price to pay for an expensive, disruptive project.”
MTA has held two rounds of public scoping meetings to gather input for the project, with five sites per round. However residents say they didn’t hear about the meetings and didn’t get notices that their properties might be affected.
Others pointed out that the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis (WB&A) trail which could serve as the basis for the maglev’s rail alignment is well-used and well-loved and they don’t want to see it “ruined” by the train.
Henley said if the WB&A alignment is chosen, BWRR plans to add improvements to the trail to create “synergy.” They include bike racks and repair stations, benches, wayfinding signs, road crossings, water fountains, landscaping, trail maintenance and events and races.
“You can see the synergy under the Bright Line in Miami, where they’ve been able to weave together the two different modes,” he said, showing a picture of that area. “It’s very successful. This is the sort of thing, the kind of ideas that we would like to bring if it is the WB&A. And we would provide state-of-the-art amenities.”
However, Henley said he was instructed by MTA not to address questions about potential alignments or the environmental impact study process, since MTA, not BWRR, handles those aspects of the process.
MTA did not send a representative to the meeting, a last-minute cancelation that angered those in the crowd and some on the dais.
“They’re not here, so I can’t consider them a team,” said Councilman Issac Trouth. “The rest of the folks, I can’t say anything to them that’s worth repeating right here because we’re in polite company.”
The rest of the city council also expressed its concerns about the project. All seven members thanked the residents for their engagement on the issue and said they would be unable to support the project at this time, although no official action was taken.
“I truly don’t see what’s in it for Bowie,” Councilwoman Diane Polangin said. But one of the things that bothers me almost as much as losing all these homes to eminent domain is how far-reaching the magnetic field is.”
She said she’d rather see the money being spent on improving existing roads.
Councilman Micheal Esteve, whose district would be most directly affected by the train, said he was concerned the private investors in the project would not be able to turn a profit and turn to the public sector for help.
“I echo the concerns of a lot of folks who pointed out that a lot of other, similar projects abroad and even just high-speed rail projects in the United States in general have a habit of going over budget, not delivering anywhere near the service that’s promised and not recuperating funds that are expected to be made back,” he said. “Speaking for me, I feel very strongly that the likelihood of us having to subsidize this in the long run is a real serious likelihood. And that really concerns me.”
Esteve added that the main decisionmakers for the project are at the state and federal level, and encouraged residents to make their opinions known to their representatives.
Henley closed the meeting by claiming that some of the information presented by residents was wrong, and said he would be creating a document with answers to the questions and concerns raised at the meeting to share with city staff.
But he, too, thanked the residents for being invested in the process.
“All I can promise is that this process will be more fair. I’ve heard your comments, I’ve heard your emotions, I’ve heard your good ideas well-delivered,” he said. “I take it very, very, respectfully. I have a lot of respect for Bowie, moreso after tonight than ever.”