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Is Maglev in our future?

Many hurdles before maglev is able to get off the ground

Sunday, March 7, 1999

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

  19990316homaglev1M.jpg (12206 bytes)
How the maglev shuttle might look. (Credit: General Atomics)

As long ago as November 1996, developers of maglev told public officials they were ready to start building.

David O’Loughlin, president of the nonprofit Western Pennsylvania Maglev Development Corp., said the high-tech transit system, supposed to put a 21st-century face on Pittsburgh, could be finished in about three years.

O’Loughlin was wrong.

And what happens — or doesn’t happen — over the next six months or so will decide whether the futuristic, low-speed maglev ever advances to the next stage or whether it goes nowhere.

Maglev, which uses powerful electromagnets to "float" and power people-mover cars along an elevated guideway, is a two-part proposal.

One part is the Civic Arena Shuttle System, a $147 million, 2,200-foot demonstration project tied into a 5,000-car parking garage behind the Civic Arena.

The other part, a follow-up to CASS, is the Pittsburgh Airborne Shuttle System, 10 miles and $550 million of extensions to Oakland and the North Shore.

"We’re at a crucial juncture" for both proposals, O’Loughlin now says of the deadlines and demands coming down on the nonprofit corporation he formed with two friends in 1992. "We shouldn’t lose this opportunity. It’s too important to Pittsburgh."

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of the finances, technology and other aspects of the maglev project found the track remains riddled with obstacles, including reluctance by the Port Authority to join WPMD as a public partner for PASS, and the lack of city support for CASS.

To try to overcome the city’s doubts, WPMD sent a letter to Mayor Murphy Jan. 11, pledging that if maglev doesn’t work, it would either replace the magnets with wheels or, "as a last resort … demolish the guideway."

"So many positive things are at stake," O’Loughlin said in an interview, including new industry for the region, development, federal funds, jobs, state-of-art transit and parking solutions.

"Elevators allowed cities to grow upward in the 20th century," O’Loughlin said. "In the next century, cities will expand sideways, using horizontal elevators. Maglev technology will make that possible, and Pittsburgh can be at the forefront."

WPMD and 22 businesses that have affiliated with it, including the for-profit Crawford Parking Corp. that O’Loughlin formed with lawyer Paul Martha and accountant Robert Schwer, want to close the $147 million financing package and begin work soon on the CASS demonstration project and parking garage. People who pay $11 for all-day parking are to be able to ride the maglev shuttle for free to the Port Authority’s Steel Plaza subway station, Downtown.

It would be the first low-speed maglev system in the world using the most advanced superconducting magnet technologies. Seventy-passenger cars would be levitated 2 inches above the guideway and moved along by linear induction motors.

But there are big issues that have not been resolved:

dot.gif (79 bytes)Although the county commissioners voted to guarantee $40 million in bonds for the CASS project, it’s not a done deal. WPMD has to satisfy 58 conditions set by the county for the guarantee to take effect. Details cannot take forever, because the county commissioners will no longer be in office 10 months from now.

dot.gif (79 bytes)Officials at General Atomics, the San Diego company that is providing the maglev technology for the system, have indicated they are growing impatient, although they have not set a deadline. They told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that until the entire $147 million financial package is in place for the Civic Arena project, they will not start developing a prototype maglev track and car assembly that is to be built and tested at a site in Lawrence County.

Without the participation of General Atomics, WPMD does not have the technical expertise to build maglev.

dot.gif (79 bytes)WPMD needs the $147 million bond issue soon because that’s where it’s getting its $1 million local match for a $1 million federal grant to conduct low-speed maglev feasibility tests, which represent the first phases of the maglev technology to be used in Pittsburgh.

dot.gif (79 bytes)WPMD’s $1 million federal grant application has been languishing since October. The Federal Transit Administration, Port Authority and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation have raised seven main issues, including no evidence of the $1 million matching fund commitment, a need for written clarification about WPMD lobbying activities and compensation to be paid to WPMD’s three officers, and questions about the financial organization and stability of a corporation "with no resources of its own." No deadline for resolving the issues has been established yet.

dot.gif (79 bytes)O’Loughlin said WPMD arrangements for the bond issue were "about 90 percent complete" and that the financing could be wrapped up if Mayor Murphy and the city approved tax deferrals that would be Pittsburgh’s contribution toward guaranteeing the bonds, action that nobody in the city seems to be in a hurry about.

In a December 1996 letter, Murphy spelled out eight conditions for WPMD to meet for him to defer $2 million a year in parking taxes. Murphy said his position "reflects a strong commitment" to the project by the city. City spokesman Craig Kwiecinski said Murphy stood by the conditions today, although Murphy was recently quoted in the Post-Gazette as being skeptical of WPMD ever succeeding.

dot.gif (79 bytes)WPMD still needs a fistful of approvals to build the pilot project: the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Public Auditorium Authority, city Planning Commission, city Art Commission, Port Authority (for the maglev stop at Steel Plaza T Station), county Industrial Development Authority, City Council and PennDOT (for approval to build the guideway over Interstate 579).

Tom Armstrong, chairman of the city Planning Commission, has said he has serious concerns about the visual and traffic impacts of the parking garage.

dot.gif (79 bytes)WPMD has yet to prepare the final drawings or bid package for a 1,600-space, first phase of the parking garage. On Jan. 8, O’Loughlin said on "Sunday Edition," a public affairs TV show produced by the Post-Gazette and KDKA-TV, that work would probably begin in June. "That was our target. But who knows how long it will take?" to get to groundbreaking, O’Loughlin says now.

Getting CASS started is critical to moving ahead with PASS, the extensions proposed to the North Shore and Oakland. That undertaking requires WPMD to secure a public partner in order to be eligible for federal funding.

The March 15 deadline to apply for the $35 million in federal funds for PASS planning is almost here, and WPMD is still trying to woo the Port Authority into a marriage.

While the Port Authority is considering WPMD’s overtures, officials give the impression they might be reluctant partners.

Port Authority General Manager Paul Skoutelas said WPMD needed to address many issues, including possible conflicts for funds and riders between maglev, and buses and trolleys.

Such a public-private partnership also would keep WPMD eligible for future two-thirds federal funding for PASS construction, although PASS will be dead if CASS fails.

The Port Authority is not directly involved in the first phase, the Civic Arena shuttle, but some authority board members are skeptical about that project and maglev in general.

Board Chairman Neal Holmes said Port Authority’s priority was to "get light rail, a proven technology, to the North Shore," not low-speed maglev.

Board member Jack Brooks, executive secretary-treasurer of the Western Pennsylvania Regional District Council of Carpenters, said he believed that WPMD "needs our partnership to give them credibility they don’t have."

And board member Estella Smith, public affairs manager for Duquesne Light Co., said she disliked WPMD’s plan for the parking garage because it will cause congestion, impact the new Crawford Square housing development where she lives and impair Hill District sight lines to Downtown.

WPMD needs to fill at least 3,500 of its spaces daily in order pay off the $147 million bonded debt for the CASS project and generate money for operation and maintenance.

Despite the questions and skepticism, WPMD has built an alliance of supporters who include some powerful Pittsburgh business and political names, including all three Allegheny County commissioners, Pennsylvania’s two U.S. senators and U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Bedford, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, which hands out federal transit money.

Even if things went exactly as O’Loughlin plans, it would be 42 months — late 2002 — before the Civic Arena maglev shuttle would go into operation. Skoutelas and other transit officials have said the 42-month development schedule was overly optimistic. They also question whether WPMD, comprising two attorneys and an accountant, has the technical expertise necessary to oversee such a project as complex as low-speed maglev.

O’Loughlin, former county development director, said all of the matters raised had been or were in the process of being addressed. The adversity, obstacles and opposition neither surprise nor discourage him.

"As for the city, we’re not asking them to take any financial risk for a project that can benefit Pittsburgh immensely," he said.

"For the county’s part, this is going to be a great investment, with very low risk.

"We can work with the Port Authority if it’s an Oakland route they’re interested in. The important thing right now is not to miss out on the federal funds. If they don’t come here, they’ll go elsewhere."

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