Ernest M. Fazio, director of communications for Maglev 2000, is chairman of Long Island Metro Business Action.

Two hundred-seventy mph was the reading on the digital speed indicator as we moved from Shanghai to the airport. We were riding the maglev in China.

The maglev - magnetic levitation - is a transportation system that travels on a dedicated guideway and is supported by a magnetic field, moving without mechanical friction. The result is a very quiet, efficient and fast ride.

The Chinese maglev was the product of an effort by Gordon Danby and James Powell while they were both working at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the 1960s. The Germans built the maglev I rode in China, employing the inventors as consultants.

A version of the technology has been built in Japan as well, also inspired by the work of Danby and Powell. It is remarkably successful. The Japanese maglev has carried many thousands of passengers, recording its highest speed at 361 mph. Japan is now building a 300-mile link connecting Tokyo and Osaka, to move 100,000 passengers per day at 300 mph.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan passed a bill in the Senate in the early '90s that provided $750 million to test and build the first maglev in America. But corresponding legislation was killed in the House of Representatives because of pressure from various special interests, including airlines, truckers and auto manufacturers.

Creating a working American maglev is a matter of national pride. It's also a matter of not letting an economic opportunity slip through our fingers.

If we don't manufacture enough of the world's important technology, we'll be beholden to the countries that do. In the process we'll lose the high-skilled, high-paid jobs that American workers have proved they can do. We can't afford to lose that segment of our society. We need to create these jobs again.

America has an extensive rail network. That network and rights-of-way are an incredible resource. We can move freight on that network using maglev, and we can do it inexpensively.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

In fact, we could move entire tractor-trailers in aerodynamic envelopes across the country at 300 mph, saving the $3,000 worth of fuel and tolls that trucks would otherwise spend. The trip would take less than a day and deliver a refreshed driver on the other end. The fee would be half the cost of driving for the trucker, and so profitable for the maglev owners that the system could pay for itself within five years.

This would be a more advanced maglev system than the first generation now operating in Japan and China. The price tag for this new system would be a fraction of the cost of those versions. The Chinese maglev floats on a magnetic cushion that has very critical clearances - about ½ inch. Building that system was costly and time consuming.

But Danby and Powell, who founded the company Maglev 2000, have never stopped improving their design. The second generation allows the vehicle to float 4 ½ to 6 inches above a guideway. This system can be built in a factory and shipped by truck to a construction site, and then quickly erected using ordinary cranes. And the higher clearances allow the vehicle to operate in ice and snowstorms.

Danby and Powell also have solved compatibility with existing rail tracks: The modification is low in cost and allows conventional trains to operate alternately.

Building an American maglev system would take as long as Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System, so jobs would be created on a long-term basis.

Private investors may soon have to look no farther than Riverhead to see the future. Maglev 2000 has applied for a federal grant to construct a demonstration project on a three-mile track at Calverton. The Transportation Department, set to make its decision by February, can make Long Island the center once again of this exciting technology.