Maglev & Light Rail: Once-Shiny Objects Now Tarnished By Reality

by Kerry Dougherty

Gosh. It isn’t often the local newspaper provides two examples of “shiny object stupidity” in one week.

But The Virginian-Pilot delivered.

On Wednesday the newspaper quietly reported on the absolute demise of the failed maglev system at Old Dominion University. That’s magnetic levitation technology for those of you who weren’t around here to experience Shiny Object Fever in the late 1990s that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

The promise of maglev was that beginning in 2002 students would zip around campus on this raised train using futuristic technology. Problem is, it never worked. The rails were sold for scrap years ago and according to a report in The Pilot, the rest of the structure is being demolished without ever transporting a single student.

The thing the reporter failed to mention in her brief story is that the developer borrowed $7 million from the commonwealth — that’s you and me — to build this monument to snake oil. As best I can tell, the loan has not been repaid.

It could have been worse. In 1999, Virginia Beach City Council came close to spending between $20 and $30 million on a maglev line along the oceanfront.

Here, read about this stupid plan yourself from the pages of the local paper:

The technology, which uses magnets to propel elevated trains, could carry passengers high above Pacific Avenue from 19th Street to the Virginia Marine Science Museum at the speed of some of the fastest amusement park rides, according to project supporters.

The proposed maglev system would operate along a two-mile route, traveling along Pacific Avenue starting at 19th Street, with stops at stations at the 9th Street parking garage, Rudee Loop and the Marine Science Museum, said Arlie Hahn Jr., Virginia Power’s program manager for the technology. The train could help bring people to several of the city’s prime tourist attractions, Hahn said.

The train would weigh about 40,000 pounds — about half the weight of a tractor-trailer — and at top speed would travel about 60 mph, Hahn said. The entire ride, which, on average, would be about 18 feet above street level, would take about 7 1/2 minutes with the four stops.

Taxpayers were spared this colossal waste of money by several grassroots politicians who expressed cynicism about the technology that had never been used anywhere in the world.

Which brings us to another close call: light rail.

On election night 2016, when the country sent Donald Trump to the White House, Beach voters wisely turned down a $100-million-a-mile extension of Norfolk’s failed light rail system from its terminus at Newtown Road to Town Center.

Norfolk had already blown $318.5 million on this 7.4-mile tinker toy.

It was another Shiny Object boondoggle that had hypnotized local politicians for years and would have done nothing to reduce traffic congestion. Light rail was being pushed exclusively by developers who were salivating over redeveloping land along the proposed train stops.

A relentless cheerleader for this nutty project was the local newspaper.
On Tuesday, however, in a stunning turnaround, the editorial department threw in the towel, urging HRT to consider rapid bus transit instead of extending the struggling system that even proponents are now calling an “amenity” rather than a transit option.

…the idea of extending The Tide to Naval Station Norfolk has been set aside in favor of rapid bus transit. And building a line to Military Circle, despite the prospect of a massive redevelopment there, must be reassessed for need and practicality in light of the tectonic changes in how people live, work and travel post-COVID.

Given the array of challenges before the city, it may be that this project, once so promising, is no longer the best use of limited resources. As Norfolk and HRT officials meet with the public this week, they will need to make a compelling case to proceed, or else head back to the drawing board.

Proof. It’s usually the taxpayers and voters who know best, not the politicians who wantonly waste our money on shiny objects.

Republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed and Unedited.