MAGLEV: Transporting New Orleans into the future

Shelby LaSalle
President
Krebs, LaSalle, LeMieux Consultants, Inc.

Eric MacDonald
Manager, Advanced Technologies
Parsons Transportation Group

There is an alternative to the congestion and delays on our highways and in our airways. It is called High Speed Ground Transportation (HSGT). The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has defined HSGT in their “On Track for the Future” (May 2000) as self-guided inter-city passenger ground transportation that is time-competitive with air and/or autos on a door-to-door basis for trips in the approximate range of 100 to 500 miles.

The adjacent map illustrates the corridors around the nation that were evaluated as part of the 1997 Commercial Feasibility Study of HSGT by the FRA. Each was found to generate future revenue streams that are projected to cover operating and maintenance expenses, continuing investment needs, and a portion of the initial capital investment. Each corridor is a unique market and many have different HSGT technology solutions.

During the same year, as part of the TEA-21, Congress authorized a “Magnetic Levitation Transportation Technology Deployment Program.” In the fall of 1998, the FRA initiated a competition to select the first project for the United States with the purpose of demonstrating a high-speed ground transportation alternative for inter-city travel known as Magnetic Levitation (Maglev) technology. In May 1999, seven projects were selected for receipt of preconstruction planning grants.

Each applicant is currently preparing conceptual plans, ridership forecasts, cost estimates, financial plans, and preliminary environmental assessments to demonstrate the feasibility of their respective projects.

The State of Louisiana and the Department of Transportation and Development designated the Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission, in a cooperative agreement with the Regional Planning Commission and the New Orleans Aviation Board, to lead the development of the Gulf Coast Maglev Project. The 48-mile project connects the communities of St. Tammany Parish on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain with the New Orleans International Airport and the central business district of New Orleans. This initial project will serve as the hub for the Gulf Coast Corridor that will eventually extend to Houston, Birmingham, and Pensacola.

In competition are the following six states:

California-The California Maglev Deployment Program, under the Southern California Association of Governments, is proposing a 90-plus-mile corridor that connects LAX, Union Station, San Gabriel Valley, and Ontario with March Air Field.

Florida-Sponsored by the Florida Department of Transportation, this 20-mile system would link the Titusville Regional Airport and the Kennedy Space Center with Port Canaveral.

Georgia-The Atlanta-Chattanooga Maglev Deployment Study proposes to start with a corridor that will operate between Hartsfield Airport and Town Center in Cobb County. The 30-mile line will eventually extend to Chattanooga. The Atlanta Regional Commission and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority head the Steering Committee for the project.

Maryland-The Baltimore-Washington Magnetic Levitation project, overseen by the Maryland Department of Transportation, has narrowed to three alternatives the alignment to connect the 40 miles between Camden Yard in Baltimore and Union Station in Washington, D.C.

Nevada-The Las Vegas-Southern California Maglev System, under the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission, is proposing a 42-mile initial project between Las Vegas and Primm, Nevada, to eventually extend to Anaheim, California.

Pennsylvania-The Port Authority of Allegheny County is sponsoring the Pennsylvania Project, a 45-mile project to connect Pittsburgh International Airport with Downtown Pittsburgh, Monroeville, and Greensburg.

Maglev is an advanced technology in which magnetic forces lift, propel, and guide a vehicle at a cruising speed of up to 300 mph over a grade-separated guideway. The technology utilizes state-of-the-art electric power and control systems to provide fully automated operation of the vehicles. This configuration eliminates contact between vehicle and guideway, and thereby permits sustainable cruising speeds of almost two times the speed of conventional high-speed rail service. The maglev technology has additional advantages of being able to safely descend steeper slopes (up to 10 percent) and pass through sharper turns (up to 12 percent) than conventional rail or highway designs allow.

For six of the seven projects, the Transrapid International (TRI) technology from Germany was selected. The TRI maglev was developed and tested over the last 20 years and has the advantage of being immediately ready to be deployed and currently operating at speeds above 240 mph. The German Federal Railway has already certified it for revenue service, meeting safety and environmental standards that are considered equivalent to those anticipated in the United States. The latest evolution, TR08, is quieter and more energy efficient than trains, planes, and automobiles. With a commitment to a technology transfer plan and achieving more than 70 percent U.S. content, TRI satisfies two of the mandatory eligibility standards.

Florida has supported the continuing development of a prototypical design originated in the United States.

Greater New Orleans has a long legacy of innovative transportation solutions for the movement of people and goods. Today, as population shifts move more people and jobs to the extremities of the New Orleans region, our transportation systems are approaching their limits. Maglev represents the least impacting solution available today for both the travel needs of our residents and the many visitors arriving through our airport. No other mode has a greater potential for improving the movement of small packages and time sensitive freight throughout the Gulf Coast.

The threat to life and property from a major hurricane is a reality of life on the Gulf Coast. In New Orleans, with much of the urban area being below sea level, the proposed maglev system has the unique potential to save lives during these times of emergency. More than 200,000 residents of the region are unable to evacuate themselves. The Gulf Coast Maglev project provides a direct connection to the evacuation routes of the North Shore, thereby meeting the needs of a second federal program with the single investment.

As a potential demonstration site for this national program, the Gulf Coast Maglev project is a top candidate, demonstrating all of the characteristics necessary for success. As with the California, Maryland and Pennsylvania projects, the Gulf Coast Maglev project serves as the hub on one of the national high-speed corridors shown above.

The crossing of Lake Pontchartrain provides an unparalleled opportunity for demonstrating the speed potential of maglev. For this entire 24 miles, the Gulf Coast Maglev system will operate at speeds between 240 and 300 mph with the scenic skyline of New Orleans visible in the distance. Only the segment through the Nevada desert has a comparable section of sustained maximum speed.

Maglev reaches its optimal configuration as an inter-city travel mode when connected into regional airports. Like New Orleans, all of the potential corridors serve regional airports and only Florida does not serve the downtown of a major city.

As a demonstration project, it is important that successful corridors maximize their ridership from three potential markets: daily commuters, tourists, and business travelers. More than half of the Gulf Coast Maglev project 33,000 daily ridership will be commuters from the North Shore and western communities, one quarter will be tourists and one quarter will be business travelers destined to the nation’s third largest convention center. Las Vegas shares similar ridership markets, while Los Angeles, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh are expected to be dominated by local commuters and residents accessing the airport. Florida will need to rely primarily on tourist ridership.

It is also critical that the initial project provides direct regional transportation benefits, specifically by reducing congestion. The Gulf Coast Maglev project will pull over 12 million annual trips out of the most congested travel corridors in the Greater New Orleans area and is second only to Los Angeles for total project ridership.

Maglev, as an automated, non-contact technology, has the potential to be one of the most cost-effective transportation modes to operate and maintain. Under the FRA program, there are three financial requirements. The individual projects must demonstrate that they can operate as a self-sustaining entity with total revenues exceeding operating and maintenance expenses and continuing investments. The Gulf Coast Maglev project is projected to generate almost 50 percent higher revenues than expenses. All other projects have also indicated that they are able to demonstrate self-sufficiency. Secondly, the overall capital costs of the project must be less than the overall benefits.

Finally, public/private partnerships have been developed for each corridor. Each partnership must be able to demonstrate through a comprehensive financial plan that the project can be completed with available federal, local, and private funding sources. A maximum of $950 million in Federal Maglev funds is proposed to be available and it requires that a minimum one-third of the total project costs come from local and private sources. At the time of the writing of this article, all of the candidate projects were performing this financial analysis but had not yet published their respective results.

As Europe and Asia have already demonstrated, the future of our nation’s efficient transportation of people and goods must include HSGT systems such as magnetic levitation.

For further information, FRA has a very informative web site at http://www.fra.dot.gov/o/hsgt/maglev.htm with connections to many of the project web sites and the technology providers.