MARTINSBURG, WEST VIRGINIA — For 14 years, Jolene Owen has taken the 5 a.m. train every day from Caperton Station here in West Virginia to Union Station in Washington.
The 68-year-old legal secretary doesn't mind the two-hour commute on the MARC Brunswick Line to her job at the Department of Justice. She and her fellow passengers are part of what she calls her "train family" — they look out for one another, and keep an eye on each other's belongings.
But the future of their commute is now uncertain. Maryland, which operates the MARC system, threatened late last year to end West Virginia service this summer, unless that state paid $3.2 million to continue it.
As a stopgap, the two states agreed last month that West Virginia would pay Maryland $1.5 million to extend service for another year.
But they haven't agreed on a permanent fix.
Owen says it's about the fifth time Maryland has threatened to cut the service on which she and hundreds of other West Virginians rely. It's usually followed, she says, by a fare increase.
The increase, last June, raised the price of a weekly pass between Martinsburg and Washington to $130 and the cost of a monthly pass to $377.
"It's very frustrating," Owen said. "It's an ongoing problem. They've been working this out for years. We've gotten so annoyed with it."
Service has been pared back over the years, too. Now only three trains leave Martinsburg each morning: At 5 a.m., 5:25 a.m. and 6:25 a.m.
MARC has been operating trains in West Virginia since the 1970s under a series of intergovernmental agreements between the two states.
Maryland Transit Administration CEO Kevin Quinn says West Virginia has never subsidized the service. When the most recent agreement expired last Halloween, Quinn says, he and Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn studied the rising costs and questioned whether Maryland ought to be funding a train service for another state's residents.
Officials say it costs Maryland $3.2 million to operate MARC service in West Virginia. The total MARC budget, which funds lines from Baltimore, Brunswick and Perryville to Washington, is $140.2 million for the 2018 fiscal year.
Rather than sign another five-year memorandum of understanding, Quinn says, Maryland moved to a month-to-month deal, to allow Rahn and West Virginia Transportation Secretary Tom Smith to negotiate funding.
"The end of the contract was the trigger to have the discussion," Quinn said. "We thought it was time to address this issue of Maryland taxpayers paying to transport West Virginia residents to jobs."
Owen and other West Virginian riders want their state to pony up.
"We bring a lot of money into the state with real estate taxes, personal property taxes, buying gas here," Owen said. "For representatives, who we elect, to never put us in the budget is absurd."
It's more complicated than that, West Virginia state Sen. Craig Blair says. Blair, West Virginia's Senate finance chairman, helped negotiate the $1.5 million MARC service extension.
West Virginia ridership has dwindled to an average of 325 passengers a day, according to the MTA. At those levels, Blair said, the $3.2 million requested by Maryland would equal "car payments for a Mercedes for each and every rider."
"You can't sell that legislatively and make that happen," he said.
West Virginia Del. Riley Moore represents his state's Eastern Panhandle.
As ticket prices rose and service was cut, he says, some 350 to 400 West Virginians began driving into Maryland to catch the train in Brunswick.
Blair and Moore say West Virginia needs to find a way to boost ridership. They say another ticket price increase and funding from local governments in the Eastern Panhandle likely will also be required to sustain service.
"When you take the totality of all the riders from West Virginia that ride the train, including the ones that drive to Brunswick, it's over 800 passengers," Moore said. "I am absolutely committed to finding a long-term solution."
West Virginia is slowly emerging from a recession driven in part by the decline of coal, one of the state's chief industries. Falling tax revenues have put pressure on the state budget — a central issue, officials say, in the statewide teachers strike in February and March.
"The budget situation is getting better," said economist Eric Bowen, a professor at West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research. "Whether the state is willing to spend the kind of money MARC is asking for, I don't know."
Adding to the cost, Maryland also plans to turn over to West Virginia the $156,000-a-year shuttle bus that runs along the line as a substitute for some of the discontinued train service.
Smith, the West Virginia transportation secretary, says Rahn initially asked for $3.6 million for MARC in December, and gave him a few months to work with the legislature to find funding.
West Virginia negotiated that figure down to $3.2 million, Smith says, and then offered the one-time, $1.5 million payment last month. The state found the funding in cost savings in its state auditor's office.
"We were able to use that to help out MARC and the citizens of Eastern Panhandle," West Virginia State Auditor J.B. McCuskey said.
Smith says negotiations between the two states were collegial.
"The very fact he accepted half the bill is an example of that," he said. "This was not adversarial in any way."
Quinn says Maryland officials understand West Virginia's fiscal situation, and were buoyed by the state's ability to come up with the $1.5 million.
"We said, 'OK, that's a great starting point,'" Quinn said. "I think it's something we can solve long-term."
MARC service in West Virginia benefits more than just the daily commuters, and the state wants to come up with a way to keep it, Smith says.
Among other advantages, he says, the train provides Shepherd University students with a link to internships and other opportunities in Washington, and it gives Washingtonians a way to reach West Virginia's natural attractions, such as the Appalachian Trail.
"There is tremendous benefit, culturally, economically, from a tourism point of view," Smith said. "If we allow that to be lost, it will have been shortsighted on our part."
Quinn agrees the service has value for the greater region.
"We need to be sure that it's a cost-effective solution for Maryland taxpayers," he said.
Blair is optimistic that the states will come up with a solution.
"We can negotiate something," he said. "We can do this."
Aboard the 6:25 a.m. train out of Martinsburg one morning last week, Tim Lynch was less hopeful. The 57-year-old doubts MARC will rank highly enough among West Virginia's statewide priorities to get the funding it needs.
"I think it's on its deathbed," he said. "West Virginia is extremely poor. The rest of the state is going to feel like they're being cheated, giving so much money to a MARC line in this part of the state."
The 57-year-old Washington native lived in Maryland for 23 years until moving in 2016 to a home near Hedgesville, West Virginia, roughly 15 minutes north of the Martinsburg MARC station.
He said he has ridden the MARC on and off for 25 years.
"We don't want to see the service disappear," he said.
When Kilinia Rhone needs to go to Landover for his job at FedEx, he catches the MARC train in Martinsburg.
The 49-year-old Winchester man doesn't ride it daily, but says it's a far better alternative to sitting in traffic. West Virginia ought to cough up its share to keep the trains running, he says.
"If Maryland's asking for $3 million,' he said, "we should just go on and give them the $3 million."
Mike Galloway, a 32-year-old Shepherdstown man, gets on at Duffields and takes the MARC to his job as a museum technician in Washington.
If the West Virginia MARC went away, he says, he would either drive another 20 minutes to Maryland to catch it in Brunswick, or drive even farther, to Shady Grove, to take the Washington Metro into the capital instead.
"As long as I get to work and have a couple hours to not be driving anywhere near D.C.," he said, "I'm happy."
Alex Sokal found out about MARC service a year and a half ago.
The 31-year-old Martinsburg man had been driving every day to his job as a service technician in Washington. He says he spent as much as four hours in traffic on the way home. He would sometimes pull over on Interstate 270 to nap.
Sokal hopes West Virginia can keep the train. He worries about the increase in car crashes he said would result from adding another several hundred daily commuters to the interstate highways.
"It's not a question of money," he said. "It's a question of ethics."