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Editorial: Too slow-speed

Maglev is inching ahead on the political track

Saturday, October 16, 1999

The proposed $147 million Downtown magnetic levitation train proposal continues to move forward, but at an agonizingly slow pace. City Council recently approved a conditional 18-month lease for a parking garage adjacent to the Civic Arena that is part of the project.

Under the council agreement, the Western Pennsylvania Maglev Development Corp. now has 18 months to arrange financing and secure various governmental approvals for the project, including the 5,000-car parking garage and a half-mile elevated maglev track from the garage to the Steel Plaza transit station on Grant Street.

The deadline puts the maglev development team on notice that City Council in particular and the region in general won't wait forever to get some sign that this ambitious project is more than a dream. The proposal to build this so-called slow-speed maglev has been kicking around now since 1996 and the first spade of dirt has yet to be turned on it.

Granted, there have been an enormous number of clearances, arrangements and other details that have had to be worked out since the project was announced. Many more remain. And given Pittsburgh's almost legendary caution about new ideas, the political terrain on Grant Street, the memories of the failed Skybus program years ago and other obstacles, the developers may have run into more hurdles than they anticipated.

To be fair, there have been other signs of progress for the maglev team. Last March, the Port Authority agreed to participate in a public-private partnership seeking federal funds to develop the low-speed maglev transit system here, and an application for $10 million in planning funds was then filed with the Federal Transit Administration.

They also have gotten approval from the Allegheny County commissioners to guarantee $40 million in bonds for the project, although details still have not been worked out completely yet.

But time may not be on the side of this project. In January, Allegheny County's home rule government will become a fact, and there will be a new county executive in office. Neither of the two candidates favor support of maglev. This puts pressure on the maglev team to get the county end of the bargain tied up in the next two or three months or face some potentially serious setbacks.

Time is a problem in another important way: public relations. The passage of time has allowed the momentum to evaporate and the glow of optimism and excitement around the project to dissipate considerably.

There now is growing skepticism about whether the project will be built at all, to say nothing of a general sense among the public -- justified or not -- that the technology is simply not up to practical application yet.

The growing sense of public skepticism about the project could spell trouble for maglev in the mayor's office. One of his conditions for backing maglev is that it must have community support. Sensibly, the mayor also expects the developers to have sufficient financing to dismantle the maglev system if it fails and make payments to the city in lieu of property taxes. They also must show that it won't compete with other transportation improvements in the city.

None of this is to say that it is time to abandon the idea of maglev completely. We continue to believe that the project could bring some much needed relief to the Downtown parking crunch, especially for those employed on or near Grant Street. It also would be a source of pride, a potential new industry bringing many jobs and a generator of national publicity for Pittsburgh. Just as important, it would send a dramatic and welcome message that Pittsburgh is a city that dares, takes risks and succeeds.

But the bottom line is that patience is wearing thin on maglev. The development team must get off the mark -- and not at slow speed.

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