Six-year-old Rey Powell sat next to his father, nose pressed against the window on the MARC train Saturday as he headed from Union Station in Washington to Penn Station in Baltimore aboard one of the system's first weekend trains.
The two planned to grab a taxi once they arrived for a visit to the National Aquarium — a father-and-son getaway for the boy's birthday.
"We love trains, and it takes away the hassle of driving," said his father, Rey Powell of Gaithersburg.
No one's sure how many weekend riders the MARC train will carry to and from Baltimore on its new, expanded Saturday and Sunday service, but Charm City marketing experts and transportation officials expect to collect on the state's $46 million venture in more places than just the fare box.
Curators and event planners, sports stadium managers and real estate brokers say they anticipate that the new train service will enable them to tap into a bigger tourism market, connecting them to regional travelers and visitors flying into Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport seven days a week.
Like other groups, city promoter Live Baltimore intends to incorporate the new weekend service into its 2014 advertising campaign. Transportation authorities want to make sure train stations and stops are appropriately stocked with maps and literature to help visitors find their way to attractions and navigate the city's public transportation. Other people, like City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, are looking forward to hopping on the train to catch a Washington Wizards game.
"We've got an asset-rich region anchored by two metropolitan cities only 40 miles apart," said Michele L. Whelley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. "The ability to get back and forth and take advantage of the region with an inexpensive, easy train ride will open up a world of opportunity."
For years, the alliance and others have pushed for the weekend service, but the General Assembly didn't come up with the cash for the Saturday and Sunday trips until earlier this year through the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act, which will raise the gasoline tax by about 20 cents in 2016.
The Maryland Transit Administration set the goal as early as 2007, including seven-day service in an ambitious 28-year plan for the MARC. The state has invested more than $500 million on the MARC system in the last seven years.
"It's just a natural next step that we need to take," MTA administrator Robert L. Smith said. "It's part of our vision of growing ridership. It's part of our vision of making the region much more mobile. … We may be one of the only major metropolitan areas left that doesn't do weekend service."
The state did not analyze the potential economic impact of the extra trains and does not have estimates of projected ridership for the service, according to Smith. Weekend service has repeatedly surfaced as a demand in customer surveys, he said.
The MARC, a decades-old commuter rail line, has daily ridership between 35,000 and 40,000 passengers. A one-way weekend ticket from Baltimore's Penn Station to Washington's Union Station costs $7 on MARC, the same as during the week. That's compared to about $12 on Amtrak.
Amtrak reported about 6,000 one-way trips on weekends between Baltimore and Washington over a six-month period in 2012, Smith said. He hesitated when asked if the MARC expects to lure those passengers with its cheaper fares.
"We don't even want to say that, but what we will say is that that's a good gauge of the demand that's out there," Smith said.
Chris Peters and Andrea Kruszka canceled their Amtrak tickets from Baltimore to Washington in exchange for MARC tickets and saved $14. The couple came to Baltimore on Friday to see the aquarium and have sushi and drinks at the Inner Harbor, where they stayed the night at the Marriott.
"He likes the crab cakes, and I like that it's not D.C., a little different pace, scenery," Kruszka said. "It's a quick weekend trip."
Kruszka, who lives in Washington and works in marketing, said she thinks Baltimore could do a better job promoting the city. Peters was visiting from Chicago.
"I heard about this one time in D.C. and it's when I was waiting to get on the Metro," Kruszka said. "Other than that, I had no idea that this opportunity was even available. … Honestly, I don't think people in D.C. know about it."
Whelley said the alliance pushed for the expanded service with recommendations on how to pay for the expansion and proof of rail line capacity. The recession and lingering economic slump slowed efforts to expand the MARC service, which also had to negotiate with Amtrak, which owns the Penn Line rails, officials said.
The alliance also hasn't produced an economic development study to prove the return on investment for the expansion, but Whelley called the opportunity a "no-brainer." The alliance, created in 2007, pushes for improved regional transportation on behalf of civic organizations, businesses, institutions and nonprofits.
"We think it's huge," Whelley said. "We really felt that given the benefits we expect to reap from it regionwide — not just in Baltimore or D.C., but regionwide — it will be a great investment."
Richard Clinch, a research economist at the Battelle Memorial Institute, said the added service will be "unambiguously good" for the region, supporting the growing connections between the two cities and the BWI area.
"The better the links, the stronger the region. The better the region, the stronger the economy, the better everybody else is," Clinch said. "This is economics 101. This isn't complex. The thing for me is why wasn't this done before. People have been asking for this for 10 years."
The Penn Line, which will make a stop in West Baltimore and at Penn Station, is currently the only MARC line to add weekend service. Nine trains will run on Saturday. Six will run on Sunday.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city intends to support the state's investment by marketing the city's restaurants and attractions, such as the Maryland Science Center in the Inner Harbor, to visitors, especially those from Washington.
"The Baltimore that I know and love would be attractive to the people who live in Washington, D.C., who want an experience with an authentic city with real neighborhoods," Rawlings-Blake said, "an authenticity that you can't get in D.C., just because it is so heavy with transplants and it's hard for the authenticity to shine through a lot of times."
Whelley said the value of the weekend service can't be analyzed based on the cost of direct fares alone. A broader impact, including the increased allure for Washingtonians who may look to Baltimore for a lower cost of living, should be factored in, she said.
"The economic benefit will be the additional people who will come into Baltimore for Artscape, for the monument lighting," Whelley said. "It will be the economic benefit in marketing Baltimore neighborhoods to people in D.C."
Live Baltimore, which promotes the city as a place to live, sees the added service as an opportunity to advertise Baltimore on the train and at Union and Penn stations. Steven Gondol, the organization's director, said Live Baltimore is starting to think of ways to incorporate the added service into its 2014 ad campaign and hopes the service will encourage Washington residents to try Baltimore and stay.
"It's an opportunity for all those great people in Washington, D.C., to not just visit but also to come up and figure out how much better Baltimore is," Gondol said.
Attractions such as Fort McHenry and the Walters Art Museum have been anticipating an increase in visitors. The city's unique offerings will give visitors an experience different than what they'll see in the Northeast and elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic, city marketing experts said.
Whelley said the next goal is to improve the "last mile" connectivity of the city's public transportation while looking toward extending the MARC's late-night service and eventually providing more midday trains during the week.
Theresa Belpulsi, vice president of tourism and visitors services for Destination DC, said the expanded train service also opens up options for Washington residents and international visitors to D.C. who are looking for day trips.
She thinks the convenience of riding to Baltimore will be a draw for foreigners.
"Many are very train-savvy," Belpulsi said. "They may stay in Washington, D.C., and may want to do some excursions. They may want to go to an Orioles game or the aquarium."
And likewise, Belpulsi said, Marylanders looking for a 'staycation' this winter can take the train to Washington to go ice skating, see the new giant panda cub, Bao Bao, at the National Zoo, or check out the Christmas tree at the Capitol. In the spring, the train will be ideal for those wishing to avoid traffic when they go to see the cherry blossoms, she said.
The train service also could be a boon to Washington in the slower cold weather months, Belpulsi said. Hotel occupancy in Washington on Dec. 8 last year was about 60 percent.
"This has been a long time coming," Belpulsi said. "Everybody and anybody has been waiting."
Serving commuters — even on the weekend — will remain one of the MARC's main functions, said Whelley.
"The working world is no longer Monday to Friday, 9 to 5," she said.
Getting to Washington and back
Nine MARC trains will run on Saturdays and six on Sundays, with the first train from Baltimore's Penn Station at 7:35 a.m. and the last one at 9:15 p.m. Saturday. Service runs from 9:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday.
In Washington, the first train will leave at 9:02 a.m. and the last one will leave at 10:35 p.m. Saturday; First and last trains Sunday will run at 10:40 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Monthly and weekly passes can be used for the weekend tripsCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun