MTA to spend $196,000 outfitting weekday MARC commuter trains with bike racks

Weekday MARC trains are getting bike racks beginning in 2018.

Every weekday morning, Megan McCormack locks up her bicycle outside Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, then boards a MARC train to Washington, where, she said, she inevitably has to wait on a Red Line metro to get to work.

The 27-year-old Govans woman would prefer to pedal the 2.5 miles from Union Station to her job at a philanthropy consulting firm near Dupont Circle, but she can't take her bike on the weekday MARC trains.

To better serve passengers like McCormack who ride bikes, the Maryland Transit Administration will spend $196,000 over the next year to add bicycle racks to its 22 daily commuter trains. The goal is to have at least one car equipped with bike racks on each train by spring 2018, officials said.

"I would definitely think I'd use it," McCormack said. "The Red Line can be very hit or miss. ... Being able to cut out the expense of the metro and being able to bike the last little bit would take out the guesswork."

Because MARC currently only allows fold-up bicycles, which are generally more expensive, on weekday commuter trains, few of its estimated 39,000 daily riders bring bikes with them, said MTA Administrator Paul Comfort.

MARC began allowing bikes on its weekend Penn Line trains in 2014 by replacing seats on one side of a car with a long rows of racks, but those cars aren't practical for weekday use because the racks take up too much valuable seat space.

Instead, MTA will outfit 15 train cars with a more out-of-the-way solution: a pair of vertical bike racks plus storage space at the end of a car, replacing three seats in the corner.

"This improves the lives of people who want that service," Comfort said, "without impacting those that don't."

To pay for it, MTA will use a $96,000 Maryland Department of Transportation grant and $100,000 of its own funds.

"It's all part of our plan to upgrade everything we're doing," he added. "The MTA is, in a lot of ways, stuck in the 1980s. We looked across the country and said, 'What's a 21st century transportation system look like?'"

The cars will be marked on the outside, so bicycle-toting riders can find them. Each car can accommodate two bicycles. Conductors will monitor the number of bicycles on the racks, and as demand increases, officials will add bike rack cars on each train, MARC director Erich Kolig said.

"We're going to start small: one per train," he said. "We'll see how it goes from there."

The MTA doesn't track how many passengers ride their bikes to MARC stations and lock them up before boarding the train.

The current weekend cars, with their full rows of bike racks, average about five bikes at any given time, Kolig said.

Liz Cornish, executive director of Bikemore, said in a statement the Baltimore bicycle advocacy group was thrilled MARC was allowing bicycles on weekday service, which will increase bike commuting trips and take cars off the road.

In a May letter supporting the MTA's grant application, Cornish called the addition of bike racks to MARC commuter trains "an important step in the state recognizing the value of bicycles as a first- and last-mile solution.

"Investing in these solutions can be the decision point between someone opting to take public transit or not," she continued.

The service also will allow bicyclists to take MARC trains over the Susquehanna and Patuxent rivers, making Maryland more accessible overall, she wrote.

The bike racks don't remove much passenger capacity from the commuter trains. In recent years, MARC added 54 bi-level train cars to its fleet, increasing the average six-car train's seating capacity to 900 passengers, Kolig said. While each bike car will lose three seats, the bi-level cars have increased seating overall by 20 percent.

The bike rack area also comes with the added benefit of extra storage space, Kolig said. That's a constant request, he said, especially from BWI Marshall Airport-bound passengers with large rolling suitcases.

MARC is striving for a more service-oriented mentality, Kolig said: "You're not riding our trains. We're providing your trains."

Amtrak passengers traveling through Baltimore on Northeast Regional trains with baggage service — trains 65, 66 and 67 — may check their bicycles, which are hung in a separate baggage car for a $20 bicycle fee. Amtrak's high-speed Acela train does not offer bicycle service.

"We have introduced bike service to various trains throughout the country," said Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods. "We look forward to measuring the success of this service with an eye to expansion to additional routes."

Kara Rosenstrauch and Claire Fultz, social workers who commute on the MARC train to Washington from Baltimore, like the idea of bike racks on the daily trains.

"It would be really good for [Washington] in general," said Rosenstrauch, 27, of Columbia. "Instead of Ubering or taking a cab, you can promote healthy behavior and get to where you need to go."

Plus, she said, "it saves on gas."

"We need all the savings we can get," said Fultz, 32, of Towson.

Lance Price, 48, a professor who takes the MARC between Baltimore and his job at George Washington University, said he's seen passengers with folding bikes struggle to find somewhere to put them after boarding the train.

"It's got to be annoying for them, getting in and out of the station," he said.

Though he lives in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood, Price keeps a bike in Washington for when he gets off the train. He said both Baltimore and Washington should keep pushing for better bicycling accommodations, such as the cities' respective bike-share programs and the protected bike lane on Maryland Avenue.

"The more we can encourage biking the better," Price said.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°