During nearly 40 years as a federal wildlife biologist at the Patuxent Research Refuge, Sam Droege has tromped across nearly every one of its 12,800 acres.

A view of the high-speed magnetic-levitation train in Japan as it appeared during Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s visit in 2015. Credit: Steve Kwak / Office of the Maryland Governor

And he doesn’t want to see any of them plowed under for a blazingly fast train. That is a growing possibility, though. With plans solidifying for a magnetic-levitation train between Baltimore and Washington, Droege and other conservation advocates are on alert for potential harm to the 85-year-old wildlife refuge.

“It’s hard to get across how special and rare this place is,” Droege said. “These places are irreplaceable. It’s not something that can be moved and remade elsewhere. It would be like going to the National Mall and removing one of the museums.”

The maglev train project took a key step forward in January when the Federal Railroad Administration and Maryland Department of Transportation published the preliminary findings of a federally mandated five-year, $28 million environmental and engineering study.

The draft environmental impact study outlines the project in detail: a sleek train floating on a cushion of air inside a U-shaped “guideway,” with all propulsion controlled by magnets. The guideway would run through tunnels bored as deep as 320 feet beneath the surface, and along elevated sections of the route looming 150 feet overhead. The maglev train can reach speeds topping 300 mph, slashing the time of the 36-mile trip between the cities to a mere 15 minutes.

But what has caught the attention of conservationists is the possibility of a largely above-ground section of the route slicing through federal lands just outside the DC Beltway.

Two routes are under consideration. Both mostly parallel the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The main decision boils down to selecting a more densely populated route to the west of the parkway or an eastern route that crosses into federal lands, including the fringe of the Patuxent wildlife refuge.

The new analysis calculates that the eastern route could be constructed atop as much as 24 acres of the refuge’s property. A western route would leave it untouched. Both routes would bisect the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, another federal oasis of open space, with as much as 187 acres being given over to the maglev and its supporting infrastructure.

Conservationists say that inside the refuge, the project would destroy wildlife habitat, upend wetlands and possibly require the re-routing of streams.

“I can’t find words strong enough to express what I feel,” said Marcia Watson, president of the Patuxent Bird Club. “It’s an environmental disaster in the making. I am outraged that a private company thinks it can waltz in here and take our land.”

Northeast Maglev, the company backing the project, says it will reduce travel times and ease congestion on the often-gridlocked roads connecting Washington and Baltimore. It will also be an economic boon, creating up to 195,000 jobs during construction and supporting up to 440 jobs while in operation, according to the draft study.

The environment will benefit from lower greenhouse gas emissions, a result of converting thousands of drivers into train passengers, said Wayne Rogers, the company’s CEO. The region can also look forward to improved water quality, he added.

“Traffic’s hurting everybody. The [Chesapeake] Bay is getting 85 million pounds of [nitrogen] pollution coming into it [from the air], and much of that is from transportation,” Rogers said.

This wooded area in Maryland would be replaced by a sprawling trainyard near the border of the Patuxent Research Refuge and Beltsville Agricultural Research Center under one of the scenarios being considered for the construction of a high-speed magnetic-levitation train. Credit: Sam Droege / U.S. Geological Survey

It is not the first time that a maglev has been proposed between Baltimore and the nation’s capital. In the 2000s, the Federal Railroad Administration and Maryland Transit Administration got as far as finalizing an environmental impact study and selecting a transportation system based, at the time, on Germany’s Transrapid technology. Then came a budget crunch and a legislative blockade on state spending toward the effort.

Northeast Maglev revived the idea in 2010. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, began lobbying the federal government to pick up the tab for a new study. The campaign was highlighted by a 2015 trip to Japan in which Hogan rode on a maglev train at speeds exceeding 300 mph. Afterward, he pronounced it an “incredible experience.”

Japan has vowed to contribute $5 billion toward construction; the bulk of the $10.6 billion to $12.9 billion total cost is expected to be privately funded.

In their new report, the Federal Railroad Administration and state transportation department opted against identifying a preferred route, saying they will consider the public’s reaction to the document and other federal agency input before making a call.

Northeast Maglev officials say they favor the eastern alignment, which would impact the Patuxent refuge, because it poses fewer impacts to existing neighborhoods. The train would operate between Mount Vernon Square in Washington and the Cherry Hill neighborhood in Baltimore, with a lone stop at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. In Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, the project has drawn protests from residents who say they will bear all the burdens of the train without any benefits because of the lack of stops.

A sprawling train-maintenance facility would be raised in the western part of the Beltsville research center, under this building scenario. That area is home to many rare plant species and one of the southernmost of gatherings of pine barrens, said Droege, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey, which has a research facility based at Patuxent. His comments about the project reflect solely his own observations, not his employer’s, he said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the Patuxent refuge, said the agency will voice its opinion when it submits written comments this spring. But in a January 2017 email made public along with the environmental analysis, a Fish and Wildlife official then-stationed at Patuxent told the railroad administration that running the route through the refuge would probably be a “non-starter.”

Patuxent is unique among the nation’s more than 500 refuges as the only place set aside for conducting wildlife research, Watson said. “All the other refuges depend on the research done at Patuxent,” she explained.

Fish and Wildlife officials likely will need to complete a “compatibility determination” before deciding whether to allow the company to build in the refuge. And stripping any land from the refuge or agricultural research center is expected to require Congressional approval before it can happen.

This article originally appeared on BayJournal.com on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

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