Delaware and Maryland transit officials are scheduled to meet next week to discuss extending MARC commuter trains into Delaware, closing a gap in regional rail service between Perryville in Cecil County and Newark, Del.
The idea, which could send MARC trains as far north as Wilmington, would knit together the northern Chesapeake Bay region more tightly, easing the exchange of workers between Delaware and Maryland.
Advocates of the long-discussed proposal said additional service is long overdue.
"It really needs to happen," said Nancy Jacobs, a state senator for Cecil and Harford counties from 1999 until this year. "It's a huge disconnect. It's like the great divide."
MARC service now ends at Perryville, about 20 miles from the Delaware border. Philadelphia's regional line extends only as far south as Newark, Del., a 30-minute drive from Perryville.
That leaves the more expensive Amtrak as the only option for commuting by rail. Highway tolls in Maryland and Delaware make commuting by car along the Interstate 95 corridor pricey.
Delaware Transportation Secretary Jennifer Cohan said at a public meeting this month that linking the two stations is a priority. But the idea has been blocked in the past by lack of funding and other logistical hurdles, some of which might be easing.
This spring, Delaware transit officials presented new plans for a Newark Regional Transportation Center, which would allow two commuter trains to serve the station at the same time. The agency faces a 2018 deadline to spend a $10 million federal grant, awarded for the project in 2012.
MTA spokesman Paul Shepard said the proposal to extend service is "in the conceptual planning stages." No funding has been set aside. Transit officials last met to discuss the proposal in December.
"Closing this gap in service has been a top priority for Cecil County residents and officials for years," he said. "We will continue to work with our regional partners to further study this proposal."
Any extensions depend on funding, improvements to infrastructure and equipment availability, said Julie Theyerl, a spokeswoman for the Delaware Transit Corp., which operates the DART First State bus service. Demand for commuter service between Perryville and Newark or Wilmington still needs to be studied.
"It's really too much in the infancy stage to even say where it would go," she said.
About 6,550 people living in Delaware's New Castle County commute to work in Washington, Baltimore or Maryland counties served by the Penn Line — a number that has been growing in recent years, said George Sharpley, chief of the Delaware Labor Department's office of labor market information.
About 12,000 residents of Harford and Cecil counties — or 8 percent of the employed — work in Delaware, according to Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
DART has considered running a commuter bus to the Aberdeen area to test the appetite for train service but has not talked to the MTA about that plan or identified park-and-ride locations, Theyerl said. The MTA likely would operate any service, since most of it is in Maryland, she said.
"Closing the commuter rail gap between Newark and Perryville is very important to Delaware, but without further analysis of the demand for this service it is difficult to rank this expansion versus other transit needs," she said.
Delaware does not operate any rail of its own. In 2014, it paid about $10.1 million to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and Amtrak for service, electricity and track use, a cost offset by about $4.5 million in revenue related to riders.
Sally Staehle, 60, of Baltimore, said she likes taking MARC to Washington and would be interested in extended northbound service.
"I don't go to Delaware, but I would go to see something in Delaware if a train went there and there was easy transportation from the Delaware train station," she said.
MARC has expanded its offerings in recent years, adding weekend service on the popular Penn Line and increasing the number of trains this spring on the Camden Line, which links to the University of Maryland's College Park campus.
Extending Penn Line service to Newark was a 2015 goal in MARC's 2007 Growth and Investment Plan, but the idea was dropped in a 2013 update.
The MTA still wants to build a maintenance facility in Perryville, which it has said is key to current operations and expansion to Delaware, despite local opposition to the proposed site.
The Perryville station has among the fewest boardings on the Penn Line, according to March passenger figures reported by the MTA. But the ridership — about 172 people embarked headed south — is similar to that in stops such as College Park on the Camden Line and higher than Frederick's.
The federal base realignment and closure process that sent more workers to Aberdeen Proving Ground prompted renewed calls for added train service, Jacobs said. In 2014, she co-sponsored legislation that would have required the MTA to study adding service to Delaware, but the bill died in committee.
Steve Chan, chair of the MARC Riders Advisory Council, said officials have spoken about the idea before, but he thinks that any such extension is years away, given the outstanding questions.
His organization supports the idea of expanded service, which would enable the public to travel to Delaware using cheaper, regional lines.
"No disagreement — we would love it ... because it provides continuity of service," he said. "It gets down to where is the money coming from, how much money do we have ... and then trying to figure out with a limited pool of money, 'Well, what do we do?'"
John Kornak, 44, of Rising Sun, who was boarding a Perryville-bound train Wednesday evening in Baltimore, said the extension is "never going to happen."
"They've been promising this for four or five years now," he said, "and still nothing."
This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of John Kornak's name. The Sun regrets the error.
Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Jedra contributed to this article.