Maglev on I-5: The Shapery of things to come?

San Diego Union-Tribune
August 9, 2004

The future doesn't arrive on schedule.

If San Diegans in 1954 looked a half-century ahead, they likely imagined quiet, clean, quick transport, quantum leaps beyond congested highways.

If those same San Diegans could have foreseen what vast numbers of 2004 commuters endure, they would have wondered what held up the future.

In contrast, the future of communication showed up early. Qualcomm, Google, DVDs, iPods – the minds of our Eisenhower-era San Diegans would have boggled at the astonishing sprint.

In terms of the fine motor control of the questing mind, the future has arrived. But in terms of the gross motor control of the traveling body, it is stuck in the last and the 19th centuries.

Twenty years ago, Sandor "Sandy" Shapery, the edgy developer of the downtown Emerald Plaza, W hotel and other projects, was watching a "Nova" documentary on magnetic levitation.

"I was fascinated," Shapery, 60, said last week in his downtown office.

He started clipping articles on what is more commonly known as maglev, following the advance of the rail technology invented by two American scientists almost a century ago.

"I've always been interested in science," Shapery said. "I was one of those kids in school who blew the curve in (science) courses. I told myself when the first maglev system went into operation, I'd get involved."

The time is ripe now, Shapery believes. Maglev is on line.

"You can kick the tires," he says, smiling at the ironic metaphor.

"I've always found I like to solve problems, so I solve the biggest problem I can go after – and this is it. This is the next thing I want to do."

Shapery recently formed a nonprofit company to promote an express maglev line connecting the four airports on the Southern California coast – Los Angeles, Long Beach, John Wayne and San Diego.

Where? Right down Interstates 405 and 5, among the busiest traffic corridors in the country.

Listening to Shapery, you feel the magnetic pull of the future. A high-speed train on rails planned along Interstate 15 begins to look like a plodding gravy train for obsolete technology.

Consider this: Maglev trains don't require new right of way. Just dedicate a lane in the middle of a highway and build a flying platform large enough for two tracks.

Think of what this means for the future of North County's coast: Every foot of track could be ripped up, preserving bluffs and lagoons while creating a real-estate bonanza. The Coaster could continue to operate but as a maglev commuter line.

Worried about money? Shapery, a street-smart lawyer who started out as an auto mechanic, pulls out his pencil.

Even allowing for huge fudge factors, he comes up with a venture offering the cheapest fares that clears up to a billion bucks a year. No government subsidies.

Granted, maglev is expensive to build, $127 million a mile, but it is cheap to run and maintain. It's explosively fast (300 mph in next to no time), clean, safe, quiet. It's what we dreamed all along.

As you read this, Shapery is at work editing a DVD. In weeks, he'll be promoting at maglev speed.

"I have PR companies willing to help me for free," he says.

If this is pie in the sky, it's apple pie with wings. Shapery has forged business relationship with Lockheed Martin and other heavyweight companies locked into maglev's future.

Under Shapery's urging, the San Diego Association of Governments is seeking $2 million in federal funds to study maglev. That's good, but – and this should get our competitive juices flowing – L.A. & Co. is way ahead of us.

For several years, the Southern California Association of Governments has been planning a network of 275 miles of maglev linking airports and population centers. This follows in the wake of projects in Germany, Japan, China (the first operational commercial line connects Shanghai to its airport), Nevada and the eastern United States (Pittsburgh and Baltimore-Washington, D.C.).

San Diego, a leader in high-speed Internet access, is behind the maglev curve.

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