Levitating trains: Light-rail alternative, or magnetic money pit?

Posted at 5:49 PM, Apr 28, 2014
and last updated 2014-04-28 17:49:18-04

Virginia Beach city leaders bent on a mass-transit rail line are working with a Georgia company that still owes taxpayers $7 million for a failed train at ODU.

The company, AMT, wants to run a maglev line from Newtown Road to the Oceanfront, although the company president said he's willing to scale back the scope of his proposal. AMT president Tony Morris says he and a Spanish construction firm can deliver a cross-city maglev system for a third of the billion-dollar price tag for a light-rail line. But despite his confidence, AMT has not installed the system anywhere outside its short test track in Georgia. And critics point out the company has a history of broken systems and broken promises that have cost taxpayers millions.

"It did not live up to what we hoped it would be," Patricia Northey told NewsChannel 3. Northey was a councilmember in Volusia County, Florida, when Tony Morris proposed a maglev line and research project in Edgewater. The county gave the company $600,000.

"There was a big celebration here at this location," she said. "People came out an cheered because the train moved a little bit down the tracks, and it just never went beyond that."

Northey says the promise of jobs and factories 20 years ago never materialized.

"It just kind of faded away," she said.

Northey took NewsChannel 3 to the site of the first maglev train in the nation. It's now an overgrown graveyard of disjointed concrete tracks and Fiberglas panels. Northey said when the money ran out in Florida, the company set its sites on a project at Old Dominion University. There, company officials predicted students would zip around campus on a maglev line by 2002, and there would be a line from Hampton Roads to Washington by 2007.

More than $16 million went into the ODU maglev system -- including a $7 million loan from Virginia -- and the train never worked. Some of the steel track was sold as scrap.

Morris told NewsChannel 3 the ODU project was doomed by an engineering screw-up. He said because the train was supposed to float on a magnetic field, engineers didn't think it would need a suspension system. Morris says by the time engineers realized it did, the money was gone and the project was dead. Morris and AMT retreated to Powder Springs, Georgia, to improve the system. He says a suspension system based on $80 airbags solved the problem.

He knows the high-profile failure at ODU spawned skeptics who say maglev won't work.

"From our standpoint, we've spent $16 million and 10 years to get rid of that skepticism," he says, "But we know it still exists in Hampton Roads."

Morris and AMT submitted a proposal to Virginia Beach to install a maglev line across the city, where leaders once envisioned light rail. But Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne balked, in part because of the company's debt to the state.

"If the system is viable, then they owe us the money," Layne said by phone. "If it is not, then why are we talking to them?"

Morris said the terms of the loan called for a repayment once maglev started making money. He said if he builds a system in Virginia Beach, then he can return the money.

"This will be the first revenue-producing project in Virginia, and from this project, the $7 million will be repaid," he said. "That's always been part of the plan."

But Layne's distaste for maglev has Morris' idea in jeopardy. The state is offering Virginia Beach more than $150 million to extend Norfolk's light rail to the Beach's Town Center. Layne made it clear maglev can't be considered, although some in the city are hoping he will soften that stance. But Morris said he is focusing his energy on a line from Town Center to the Oceanfront.

To allay fears of another failure, Morris says AMT and Spanish construction partners Grupo ACS will build a starter line from the Oceanfront to Birdneck Road, and will privately fund the $65 million cost.

"Financially, there is no risk here," he said. "The risk is that we screw up like we did at ODU and we have a problem we have to take care of."

If it doesn't work, he says the companies will pay to tear out the elevated tracks.

That sounds intriguing to Virginia Beach City Councilman Jim Wood. He says he won't promise a dime of tax money to the project, but if the company is willing to do it for free, why not consider it? Others on City Council also say it could be worth a serious look.

NewsChannel 3 invited Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms and City Manager Jim Spore to explain why they're interested in working with a company with AMT's track record. A city spokeswoman provided this: "Both the Jim and the Mayor are declining your request."