Weekends on the MARC [Editorial]

The launch of regular Saturday and Sunday commuter train service between Baltimore and Washington on the MARC rail line in December may be one of the best things that's happened to Charm City in decades. It will make it easier for Baltimore's harbor attractions, sports stadiums, museums and theaters to attract visitors from the Washington area and give Baltimore residents comparably easy access to weekend amenities there. Perhaps more importantly, it helps make Baltimore more appealing to Washington-area workers as a lower-cost alternative for city living and could spur a new influx of residents into the city again.

The lack of a quick, inexpensive weekend rail link between Baltimore and Washington has been long been a drag on the economies of both cities. Young people drawn to the Washington area job market often find themselves priced out of housing there as gentrification has driven home values through the roof. But they don't usually think of Baltimore as an alternative, and not just because of the distance. Part of their calculation surely involves a fear of being cut off from Washington's entertainment, athletic and cultural attractions on the weekend — or of not being able to get to their jobs if they don't work a traditional Monday through Friday schedule.

By the same token, many Baltimore residents would love to hop down to Washington on the weekend to take in a show or sports event but hate the hassle of driving down Interstate 95 and negotiating the capital's weekend traffic jams — or the expense of Amtrak. Saturday and Sunday MARC commuter service instantly dissolves those barriers; just jump on a train at Pennsylvania Station and get off 50 minutes later in Washington, where subway and Metrobus transit lines will take you practically anywhere you want to go. It's such a no-brainer that one can only wonder why it too so long for the idea to finally become a reality.

The answer, of course, is money. The state pays about half the bill for the MARC line's operations (the other half is paid through ticket sales), and Maryland's transportation funds have generally been strapped enough for cash to make new services a tall order. However, Gov. Martin O'Malley has made expanded MARC service a priority, so funding for weekend service was included as part of the massive transportation and road construction bill made possible by the legislature's decision to increase the gas tax for the first time in two decades. Expanded MARC train service is a powerful economic development tool that creates new opportunities for residents and visitors in both cities, so it's no wonder business groups and mass transit activists have been advocating such a step for years.

Even before MARC weekend service was inaugurated, Baltimore had become a magnet for Washington-area employees looking for more affordable housing alternatives. The area around Pennsylvania Station along Mount Royal Avenue and the Station North Arts and Entertainment District just south of North Avenue have seen a number of new residential development projects due to their location near the MARC commuter rail line. The addition of a weekend rail link to Washington can only accelerate that trend.

Ultimately, the biggest benefit of expanded rail service between Washington and Baltimore could be a contribution toward meeting Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's goal of attracting 10,000 new families to the city over the next decade. If Baltimore is to grow its population, it needs to improve residents' access to the region's largest generator of jobs, which is just 38 miles down the road, and make it easier to play as well as work in both cities regardless of where one lives. For too long Baltimore has been one of the few major metropolitan centers in the country without regular weekend commuter train service. Expanding the MARC line schedule is a first step toward remedying that lack, but it shouldn't be the last.

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