By Jared Council
Virginia Beach City Council members and city officials are headed to Powder Springs, Ga., Tuesday to check out a magnetic levitation passenger rail test site built by rail American Maglev Technology Inc.
AMT is one of three groups seeking to develop and operate passenger rail in Virginia Beach, but it's the only firm that seeks to use maglev technology. The others - Parsons Construction Group and a consortium led by The Philip A. Shucet Co. - intend to use traditional light rail.
"We're looking to get a first-hand understanding of where the technology is today, how viable the system is and get an understanding from the American Maglev team as to what their next steps are to get it to be a viable fixed-guideway transit system," said Brian Solis, a transportation manager with the city's Strategic Growth Area office.
Fifteen people will make the March 11 and 12 trip, though not everyone will be there both days. The list includes four city council members, eight city employees and three employees of Kimley-Horn & Associates, which is contracting with the city as engineering consultants.
Solis, City Manager James Spore, Deputy City Manager Dave Hansen and Strategic Growth Area Manager Barry Frankenfield will be among those making the commercial-flight trip. Officials said they expect the total tab, which includes Kimley-Horn expenses, to be under $6,000.
The trip will include various meetings, and AMT officials said guests will be able to ride on a full-scale maglev train that runs on an elevated half-mile track, which was built in 2006.
The trip comes after the Shucet group submitted an unsolicited proposal last April to extend light rail from Norfolk to Virginia Beach and Parsons and AMT responded with proposals in October. The next step is city council deciding which firm, if any, to go with, and which route and end point to have the track take, commonly called the "locally preferred alternative" decision.
Virginia Beach commissioned Hampton Roads Transit to study alternative light rail routes and costs. The results, released over the past several months, estimated that extending light rail to the Oceanfront would exceed $1 billion. Maglev technology was not considered, but AMT CEO Tony Morris estimated his firm could extend a line to the beach for about $334 million.
He said maglev uses about 60 percent less energy than a steel-rail system; will be elevated and therefore not require road crossings; and will be operated from a central control office instead of using drivers.
"All of those things make for a much lower operating cost," Morris said. "And because magnetic fields never need oil and grease - they never wear out - we don't have any gear boxes and motors and bearings that have to have lots and lots of maintenance."
AMT has not built any systems in the U.S., although it unsuccessfully attempted to build one for Old Dominion University student use in 2001. Morris said expected federal funding fell through and there were suspension issues.
"We went out and perfected the technology based on the lessons we learned at Old Dominion," he said. "If we did not have Old Dominion, we would still have to learn those lessons."
When asked about the ODU project, Solis declined to comment because Virginia Beach was not involved except to say: "It would have been preferred if that was up and running so that we could, obviously, visit a closer location."
Asked about maglev being less expensive than light rail, Solis said he can't yet confirm that. He said city officials are trying to determine if all of the costs considered in the HRT study have been considered in the maglev proposal.
"There may be costs that the Virginia Beach Transit Extension Study has that need to be in one, two or three of the proposals and are not, for whatever reason," Solis said.
Hansen said he and city staff members intend to make a passenger rail presentation to council sometime next month.
He said the purpose of the Georgia trip is to better understand the realm of possibility with respect to maglev.
"We have no commitments to this technology at this time," he said. "In fact, I would even go so far as to say that it is highly unlikely that this technology will be used for the initial extension of the Norfolk light rail line into Virginia Beach."
See related light rail story here