Riding the rails: Halethorpe evolves as a hub for commuters

Every weekday morning, Tim Prendergast gets in his car and drives to Halethorpe Station.

After shivering with fellow passengers in the gray morning chill one day last week, he stepped on the double-decker MARC train and rode more than 30 miles, squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of bleary-eyed commuters. Standing by the door as the coach slid into a platform at Washington’s Union Station, he prepared to leap off the train and catch the Metrorail subway for a five-minute ride to his job in Chinatown.


The journey from Prendergast's home in Westgate, a neighborhood a stone’s throw from Catonsville, takes 75 minutes each way, including the 45-minute train ride. The photographer and web developer has been commuting on MARC for 18 years.

The MARC train system, an acronym for Maryland Area Regional Commuter, carries about 34,000 passengers every weekday on three lines, according to the Maryland Transit Administration.


In the traffic-clogged Baltimore-Washington region, the train makes it possible for workers to commute from one metropolitan area to another, bypassing major highways.

With 1,336 people boarding trains from Halethorpe on a given day in September, according to an MTA report, Halethorpe is the fourth busiest MARC station and one of 13 stations on the Penn Line, which stretches from Washington to Perryville in Cecil County.

The ramp onto I-695 from Southwestern Boulevard, currently a work zone, has drawn concern from locals who say it's not safe.

Halethorpe, the closest MARC station to the Baltimore Beltway, draws people from all over the region — Prendergast said he has met people who drive there from rural Howard County and Essex. Over the course of a weekday, commuter trains make more than 40 stops in Halethorpe.

As a result, what he said was once a “teeny” station with a bench on a strip of asphalt has now become a major commuter hub, with Penn Line ridership growing more than 20 percent in the past 10 years. Passengers using the Halethorpe station have also increased steadily over the last decade at about the same rate.


The frequent rush-hour commuter train service has also allowed workers to live away from the expensive nation’s capital in the suburbs of Baltimore, stirring growth in the real estate market.

“It’s way too expensive” to live closer to the District, Prendergast said, saying he was “born and raised in Baltimore,” so staying in the area made sense.

In Westgate, Prendergast, his wife and three pets enjoy a suburban lifestyle complete with a yard, while paying a mortgage of about $1,200 per month.

By contrast, the Census Bureau estimates the median amount homeowners with mortgages pay for housing in Washington is $2,336 per month. Suburbs closer to the District are also out of reach for many.

“I probably could’ve bought a house in Montgomery County if I wanted a little closet-sized house,” said Cynthia Winder, who drives to the Halethorpe Station once a week from her home in Owings Mills.

Winder, a 15-year veteran of the Department of Health and Human Services, said she works from her home most of the week, but when she has to travel into the city, she takes the MARC to avoid traffic and D.C. parking expenses.

The trip takes two hours each way, Winder said, saying it is tolerable once a week, but that it would be much more difficult if she had to commute every day. By car, the trip takes about an hour-and-a-half, but can be unpredictable due to traffic.

The Washington metropolitan area has one of the longest average commute times at 34.4 minutes, the Census Bureau calculates.

A trip from Halethorpe to Union Station is $7 each way, while a monthly pass costs $189. Winder said the government provides employees with a subsidy for transportation, offsetting the cost.

Between 2010 and 2015, Maryland saw a 13.1 percent increase in “supercommuters,” those who travel 90 or more minutes to work each day, according to research by the Pew Charitable Trusts using census data.

Gov. Larry Hogan wants to convert inner shoulders to travel lanes, extend express toll lanes and rebuild the interchange at I-70 and I-695 in order to reduce rush hour commute times by about 15 minutes.

Commuting from the Baltimore metro area to the Washington metro area increased by 16 percent from 2000 to 2013, according to a Greater Washington Partnership report.

“It’s an economically rational thing to do, given how expensive it is to live in the D.C. area,” said Rolf Pendall, co-director of Urban’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. He said commuter rails serve mostly middle-income people who can afford the cost of transportation and have enough flexibility in their home lives to work far from home.

Though many travel from out of town as Winder does, some say the station is a draw for people looking to move to Arbutus.

Deborah SeBour, who owns RE/MAX New Beginnings, an Arbutus real estate company, said between 10 and 25 percent of her clients are looking for a home from which they can commute to D.C.

The area, she said, is more affordable than those closer to the District, and attracts buyers looking for a “small-town feel.”

Pendall said he expects housing markets surrounding commuter rail stations like Halethorpe to grow in the future, as the Washington-Baltimore region’s economic impact expands.

“This is one of the most important economic regions in the whole country,” Pendall said. “That makes these locations increasingly important in the future.”

Many people who cannot afford homes in the D.C. area move to Elkridge instead of Arbutus, SeBour said.

“People are just now discovering Arbutus,” she said.

The Halethorpe station may help people discover the town, said Prendergast, who lived in St. Denis and Relay area before moving to Westgate.

“I think if the station wasn’t there, Arbutus would be more isolated,” Prendergast said, adding that he knows people who bought houses in the neighborhood after driving through it on their morning commute.

Though traffic can bring benefits to business, SeBour said residents in a small area surrounding Halethorpe Station complain that when the 928-car parking lot fills up — which it often does — commuters park on residential streets.

Winder said she parked in overflow parking on a Tuesday morning shortly after 7 a.m., a far-off lot.

Prendergast said he usually parks in residential neighborhoods, because “by the time I come down, spaces are full.”

With so many people driving to MARC stations, adding enough parking spaces is “a problem at a lot of stations," Katherine Read, MARC’s assistant chief transportation officer, said.

MARC is in the process of installing bicycle racks in weekday commuter trains, which Read said could slightly reduce the number of people parking as they could bike to the station rather than drive.

Still, Read said, demand is steady, and grows every time people move into the area.

Areas of high growth, such as neighboring Howard County, have few options for commuting other than driving, she said. And in Washington, which traffic analytics company INRIX ranked as the sixth most congested urban area in the U.S. in 2016, people will go out of their way to avoid traffic.


Trains also allow for different activities, passengers said.


“It’s convenient,” said Emmanuel Eneremadu, who lives in Owings Mills and rides the MARC from Halethorpe to his job at the Treasury Department. “I can read, or listen to news on my phone.”

Prendergast said over his 18 years of riding the MARC, he has made friends with other regular riders.

On the Camden line, which he rode before moving to Westgate, Prendergast said fellow riders had happy hours on the way home from work. Once, they had a Christmas party and plugged a crock pot of meatballs into a train outlet, he said.

“It’s different from commuting in a car and getting to work all white-knuckled,” Prendergast said. “It beats driving — it’s good for the environment, and it’s less aggravating.”

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