Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Special report: The Maglev Mess
By Bill Burke and Debbie Messina

NORFOLK — More than four years ago, Old Dominion University jumped on board a proposal to build the nation’s first magnetic levitation train on campus, testing a new technology that the train’s designer said would one day whisk passengers from Norfolk to Washington in an hour.

It was a seductive vision, one that drew in pedigreed corporate partners such as Lockheed Martin and Dominion Virginia Power. They agreed to launch the experiment in a very public venue where every success – and every failure – would be played out for the world to see.

Today, a year and a half after the scheduled grand opening, what the public sees is a blue-and-white, bullet-nosed train sitting motionless at one end of an elevated concrete guideway, a constant reminder to students and faculty that the technology has yet to prove its worth.

A team of rocket scientists, from Lockheed Martin and ODU, is working on what they call “The Fix” – a solution to the technical problems that have caused the train to bump along the tracks instead of gliding a fraction of an inch above them.

But engineering challenges haven’t been the only setbacks. Contractors who claimed they were not paid for their work filed lawsuits, holding up a $2 million federal grant needed to fix the rough ride.

A couple of members of the ODU Board of Visitors insist that the university should have exercised more oversight in doling out a $7 million state transportation loan for the project. For instance, ODU officials never asked the train’s developer, Georgia entrepreneur Tony Morris, how much he was paying himself from that money.

Some state officials say they worry that Morris’ company, American Maglev Technology, won’t be able to repay the $7 million loan. Critics say that if ODU officials had asked their advice, they would have warned the school not to embark on the venture.

It’s not clear just whom university officials consulted before committing to maglev in 1999. Then-president James V. Koch and then-vice president David F. Harnage decline to talk about the project today.

“We’re sticking our necks out just a little bit,” Koch admitted when he announced the partnership in December 1999.

Now, the university and Morris are feeling the pressure. Reputations, careers and millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake if the train never makes it out of the station.

For American Maglev, it’s been a rocky ride already.

Before landing the deal with ODU, the company was rejected for a federal high-speed program, a federal urban maglev initiative, a project in Florida, and proposed partnerships with Virginia Tech and the city of Virginia Beach.

In 199 8, Virginia Beach officials listened to Morris’ sales pitch – he proposed a short maglev route near the Oceanfront – but decided not to commit public money to the chancy venture. As for ODU’s partnership with American Maglev, Beach Councilwoman Reba S. McClanan said, “I always wondered what convinced ODU it was a good idea for them.”

John Harding, the top maglev scientist for the Federal Railroad Administration, said ODU officials never sought his opinion before signing the deal with Morris. If they had, he said, “I would have told them that Tony Morris exaggerates what he’s accomplished, and his system doesn’t work and shows no prospect of working.”

In 1994, shortly after Morris formed American Maglev, the Volusia County Council in Florida approved a $600,000 grant to fund a maglev test track in Edgewater, near Daytona. That’s where the vehicle that now sits atop the tracks at ODU was developed.

The council members hoped the expenditure ultimately would result in technology jobs and tax revenues for the county. It didn’t. Volusia County Councilwoman Patricia L. Northey was a supporter of the experimental project early on, but she is now pessimistic. “We’ve given up hope that anything good will come of the endeavor,” she said. “We kind of got burned on this one.”

No one from ODU ever contacted her, she said.

Nor did ODU seek the advice of Nazih Haddad, manager of passenger rail development for the Florida Department of Transportation, which turned American Maglev down for a light-rail project in the 1990s.

If ODU officials had asked, Haddad said, he would have told them: “You have a company that has a lot of know-how. But whether it’s ready for deployment? I would not have suggested it was ready for deployment for passenger service.”

And if they had sought Phyllis Wilkins’ opinion, they would have gotten an earful.

“I would have told the ODU folks, 'Gosh, you got taken for a ride,’” said Wilkins, executive director of a federally funded high-speed maglev pilot project in the Baltimore-Washington area that uses a different technology. “If I was a Virginia taxpayer, I wouldn’t be real happy with this.”

ODU officials “were entrusted with public funds, and they had a responsibility to do due diligence,” she said. “They failed that responsibility.”

Morris said such criticism sometimes comes from those who have invested millions of dollars in competing technologies that, although workable, are too expensive for commercial application. He pointed out that the Maryland legislature threatened to end funding for the project Wilkins runs because of its cost.

Even within Virginia, there have been clashing views.

Leo Bevon , who was then Virginia’s director of rail and public transportation, urged the state not to invest in the ODU project.

“It raised a lot of red flags,” he said. “What’s happening now is exactly what I was afraid of. I have no problem with maglev or new technology. I had a problem with saying it’s ready to do tomorrow.”

But others were comfortable taking a risk with Morris’ maglev, considering how big the payoff could be if it worked – the nation’s first maglev train and, possibly, the answer to growing congestion woes.

“You have to sell your idea to get it off the ground. I don’t fault them for that because they have to get to the first stage,” said Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Philip A. Shucet . “They sold what they believed to be true.”

Shucet chairs the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which approved the $7 million state loan before Shucet was named state transportation chief. “To throw up our hands and give up on it now gets us nowhere as a partner,” Shucet said. “If they’re successful, we’ll get our $7 million back eventually.”

Edward L. Hamm Jr. was ODU’s rector when the university committed to the project. He said one deciding factor in taking on the project was that ODU did not have to put up any cash. Another was the research potential for the university.

When ODU signed on with American Maglev, the agreement called for the university to pay no money, but to allow the one-kilometer guideway to be built on campus and to administer the $7 million loan.

But the vehicle bumped and rattled when it moved along the test track in Florida. After it was shipped to Norfolk and testing began on the new track at ODU, the bumps, rattles and vibrations continued.

Money that was supposed to be used to build passenger stations was spent on unsuccessful efforts to improve ride quality, and the project ground to a halt.

Its debut has been postponed three times since September 2002.

A $2 million federal grant that Morris said is needed to pay for fixes to the train’s control system was put on hold after three contractors filed suit last fall, claiming they hadn’t been paid for about $800,000 in work on the guideway’s three passenger stations. That money was freed up in April after the lawsuits were settled.

Today, the three unfinished stations along the 3,200-foot guideway are littered with construction debris.

And while most members of ODU’s governing Board of Visitors support the project and still say they expect it to succeed, at least two – William M. Lechler and Ross A. Mugler – have expressed reservations.

Mugler said he is concerned that the university did a poor job in administering a $14 million contract that the university signed with American Maglev. The contract consisted of the $7 million state transportation loan and $7 million from private sources.

ODU officials signed off on monthly invoices as the project was being built, approving the money each month after American Maglev had spent it. A state audit showed there were no irregularities in ODU’s handling of the contract, and university officials have defended their oversight of the money.

Of the $7 million in public funds, ODU approved $2.68 million in payments to the company for salaries, overhead, equipment and consultants. University officials never asked Morris how much of the money was used for his salary . When asked by The Virginian-Pilot, he said he made $135,000 in 2001, $114,000 in 2002 and nothing since.

Morris said American Maglev employees were paid a total of about $600,000 in salaries, but he did not provide a precise breakdown. At its peak, there were nine people on the payroll.

The university now says it is assuming American Maglev’s role as project manager and will monitor payments of the $2 million federal grant closely.

“Just because it’s not easy, you don’t give up,” said ODU’s current president, Roseann Runte. “So often in life, people look at things and say, 'It’s too hard; we’ve always done it that way and we can’t change it.’ If we don’t try here at the university, where people are young and alive, if people with open minds can’t experiment and contemplate and try out solutions, then where will that happen?”

While ODU officials have not publicly criticized Morris, they have said they will not pay him for the next phase of the job. His salary, plus additional payments to cover American Maglev’s overhead, will be placed in an escrow account from which the disgruntled contractors will be paid.

Morris accepts blame for the project’s setbacks. “I take responsibility for it,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s embarrassing to me. It’s created a lot of undue stress for a lot of people. I’m pretty unhappy about that.”

The federal money began to flow in April, and that, in Morris’ words, will provide the “third leg of the stool” on which the project had depended. He said it was to be funded by a $21 million budget, with one-third each coming from private, state and federal sources. The federal portion has arrived late and has been smaller than expected .

“Without that third leg,” he said, “this thing’s been a little rickety.”

But Morris said that with the influx of federal dollars, the fixes to the train’s balky control system are just a tweak away. And he insisted that when it succeeds – when it makes his promised “magic-carpet ride” across campus – all th e critics will fall silent.

It can be done. In Shanghai, it’s happening right now.

A maglev train in China’s most populous city cruises at 270 mph on a 19-mile trip from the airport to a downtown subway exchange. The ride is so smooth that passengers can get up and walk around. It’s so quiet they can converse with each other without raising their voices.

Passenger fares are high because of its $1.2 billion price tag, however.

Operators last month lowered fares from about $9 to $6 for a one-way trip. Average ridership had been less than one-sixth of the train’s capacity.

The sleek three-car train is the product of about 30 years and billions of dollars worth of sweat equity and research and development. It was engineered by Transrapid International, a German company involved in four federally funded maglev demonstration projects in the United States.

By contrast, American Maglev, the Georgia-based company that developed the ODU train, has only one employee – Morris, its founder – no office of its own and a mothballed test track in Florida.

But Morris clings to his promise that he can deliver a working low-speed maglev system for less than $20 million a mile – a fraction of the cost of the Transrapid system – by putting the computer “brains” in the vehicle instead of the guideway. If Transrapid is the Concorde of maglev trains, Morris said, “We’re the Camry. … We squeeze a penny till Lincoln’s nose bleeds.”

But Morris’ train has yet to work. The setbacks haven’t kept Morris from trying to peddle his technology elsewhere. One week he’s headed for Karachi, Pakistan. The next week, it’s Mexico City. Then, dipping into his dwindling reserve of frequent-flier miles, he’s off to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

In Pakistan, American Maglev is the low bidder, at $289 million, on a project to bring mass transit to that politically turbulent nation. In addition to Pakistan, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates, Morris is either bidding on or exploring maglev markets in Bangladesh, India, Peru and Ireland. His ambitious goal is to earn half a billion dollars in revenue by 2008.

It’s part of his grand plan to sell magnetically levitating trains all over the globe. He tells all of his would-be clients the same thing: The technology is still a tweak away from working on the ODU campus, but the price is right.

Critics say that Morris trying to sell a mass transit system before the technology is proven is like building an airport and hiring air traffic controllers before inventing the airplane.

Morris, who has an engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology, makes no secret of the fact that he is mainly an entrepreneur, not a scientist. He hired several engineers, including a lead scientist who is an expert in electromagnetic research, to help develop the system at ODU.

Morris says his driving passion is “not so much a fascination with magnets as a fascina tion with markets.”

So Morris the entrepreneur keeps racking up – and cashing in – the frequent-flier miles. At one time he had amassed 4.4 million – the equivalent of nine round trips to the moon. He’s down to his last 500,000.

“I’m no jet-setter,” he declared. “I’m just a guy using free tickets, flying in the back of the plane, waiting for lightning to strike.”

Morris incorporated American Maglev in Florida nearly a decade ago, on June 16, 1994, two months after one of his giddiest successes: the opening of The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, home of the Texas Rangers and one of Major League Baseball’s showcase stadiums.

He was hired as a consultant to oversee cost estimates and schedules for the $191 million project.

A framed and signed 1994 Rangers team poster hangs on the wall at Morris’ office in suburban Atlanta. It’s a reminder of the days when Morris brought big projects to fruition on time and within budget.

Before maglev, Morris worked as a consultant on large construction projects, including high-rise buildings and jobs for Delta Air Lines.

In the movie of his life, Morris said, he sees himself as Forrest Gump – a Southern boy who embarked on a series of astonishing adventures and misadventures, his optimism never flagging.

For Morris, problem-solving is a way of life. The headaches arrive one at a time, on the cell phone that never seems to make its way into his pocket before it rings again; in an e-mail that pops up on his laptop. Or they may come in bunches, such as when three contractors filed lawsuits last fall claiming Morris hadn’t paid them.

The office in Marietta, Ga., is where Morris hangs his shingle. Except it says “Neotonus Inc.,” not “American Maglev Technology.”

Morris founded Neotonus in 1997, after determining that the same magnetic pulses that can propel a futuristic train on a cushion of air can also help tame the muscles that control human urinary flow when they stop working properly.

The company also sells a hand held medical device that uses magnetic pulses to treat sports injuries. Basketball player Tom Gugliotta treated his ailing knee with the wand like implement and was soon back in the Utah Jazz lineup, Morris said.

Efforts to reach Gugliotta were not successful. His agent did not return phone calls.

About 1,000 Neotonus chairs are used around the world – including at Eastern Virginia Medical School – to treat incontinence. They sell for about $30,000 apiece. Neotonus has enjoyed eight straight profitable quarters, Morris said.

The difference between the maglev train and the chair is simple: The chair is supposed to vibrate. The train isn’t.

Now that the federal money has been released, Morris says he can reassemble the American Maglev team. Some American Maglev partners say they are eager to jump back on board and ride the train to the end.

“We are committed to this team and its success,” said Thomas V. Radovich, a Lockheed Martin official who is overseeing the project for the company’s Orlando-based missiles and fire control division. It’s the same division that produced F-16 and F-22 fighter jets, Patriot missiles and Titan rockets.

Lockheed has kicked in $350,000, plus an unspecified “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Radovich said. Although he can’t guarantee success, he said his staff has “confidence that we can fix the problems.”

One missing partner will be Dominion Virginia Power.

Dominion invested $2 million in cash and $1.5 million in in-kind services early on. Since then, the company has shut down its electric transportation division to concentrate on its core business, supplying energy.

Although Dominion is not putting any more resources into the project, “We believe very strongly in the technology,” said Arlie A. Hahn Jr., who was Dominion’s program manager for maglev technology and electric transportation.

“There’s no doubt in my mind it could work or it can work,” he said. “It just can’t be done on the small budget put forth. Look at the dollars the Germans and Japanese spent and what we spent. It’s pennies in comparison. It truly can be done at a fraction of their costs. They just have to get over that hump.”

In a stuffy laboratory in ODU’s Kaufman Hall one day in April, two professors and three graduate students studied an undulating computer model that showed how the train reacted to various frequencies of vibration.

The effect of those vibrations was exaggerated dramatically in the model so the engineers could get a better look at the physics at work.

They created the model by taking precise measurements from the actual vehicle, which sits atop the west end of the guideway near Powhatan Avenue, and entering data into their computers.

Their work could be vital to finding the solution to the bumpy ride and measuring the success of the tweaked system.

Lockheed Martin will get the first crack at making the adjustments.

Lockheed engineers in Florida say they’ve already created new control systems and sensors and successfully tested them on computer models. With the federal dollars flowing, what’s known as the “Lockheed Fix” will be tested on a small-scale model. If that works, the engineering will be applied to the vehicle at ODU.

If not, Thomas Alberts, an ODU aerospace engineering professor, and his team are waiting in the wings to devise a solution. Achieving the smooth ride that maglev technology has promised but not yet delivered is a daunting challenge. Alberts said it’s like flying an object “through a tunnel with only one centimeter clearance on all sides and never touching the sides of the tunnel.”

There’s little margin for error. One centimeter is the width of the fingernail on a man’s pinkie.

The first objective is to achieve stable levitation. Alberts said he hopes that will happen by July. Then, by December, he said he hopes to see the train achieve stable propulsion, moving along a short section of track without bumping or vibrating.

Each step of the development will be evaluated by the project team, and decisions will be made on how – and if – the project should proceed.

“The best of all worlds would be if it worked, but it would not be the best learning experience,” said former rector Hamm, who also is an engineer. “We often can learn more from things that don’t go right than from things that do go right.”

No one has set a firm deadline for success or failure, though officials say the federal money will be spent by next April. At that point, if all goes well, the engineers will have produced a “demonstrable engineering prototype.”

The passenger stations won’t be finished, the guideway will still have missing sections of track and the train won’t be ready to ferry students. All that would require several million dollars in additional funding.

But if the engineers can’t get it right – if The Fix doesn’t work – ODU can order American Maglev to remove the train and its guideway from campus at no cost to the university.

Tony Morris was winding down in a Norfolk restaurant, his carry-on bag at his side. His tie was unknotted, and his body language was that of a man who had just finished another long day of tilting at windmills.

He knows what his critics think of him: Snake-oil salesman, charlatan, huckster. He wishes they could get a glimpse of his other side and maybe even buy into it a little bit: the dreamer, the idealist on a wondrous and serendipitous journey.

“We don’t know what the end of this story will be,” he said.

Maybe Lockheed Martin’s rocket scientists will use a gyroscope similar to the one that guides its Scud-busting Patriot missiles to correct his train’s control system, and then that magic-carpet ride will happen.

Maybe he’ll be the guy who rescues travelers from hopeless highway gridlock. And maybe not.

He sipped his wine.

“Maybe the critics are right,” he offered in a voice hoarse with weariness. “Maybe I’ll end up broke, drunk and in a gutter somewhere.”

Reach Bill Burke at 446-2589 or bill.burke@pilotonline.com. Reach Debbie Messina at 446-2588 or debbie.messina@pilotonline.com

© 2004 HamptonRoads.com/PilotOnline.com

The MagLev train at ODU.

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