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MARC is off the mark

WHEN IT comes to mass transit, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) have missed an opportunity to improve the Maryland economy by failing to fully use MARC.

The MTA has done an excellent job providing a commuter rail service. But the full potential of the system cannot be achieved while the MTA continues to operate the MARC with a commuter-only focus.

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Particularly frustrating is that most trains sit idle at what I estimate to be 29 percent of the time, not generating a dollar of revenue for the MTA, when hundreds, if not thousands of weekend riders would be willing to use the system to tour Baltimore or Washington.

The MTA could learn much from New Jersey Transit, a similar rail system. New Jersey Transit has recognized its fortuitous geographical placement between Philadelphia and New York City and has developed schedules to accommodate riders seeking the tourist attractions, shopping, and night life offered in those cities.

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A glance at one New Jersey Transit line reveals 16 Saturday departure times from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. headed to New York's Penn Station from the town of Asbury Park, 35 miles south of New York City, with return times leaving as late as 1:52 a.m.

This begs the question: If New Jersey can run its trains on weekends to send consumer dollars to New York City, why can't Maryland run its trains on the weekends to bolster the economy in Baltimore and throughout the state?

MTA's closed-mindedness seems symptomatic of a larger institutional myopia. Examining the MTA's strategic plan (which has not been updated since 2000) reveals no planned efforts to recruit consumer, tourist and recreational riders -- noncommuters.

Admittedly, the strategic plan is a holdover from the previous Democratic administration. Nonetheless, there has been no indication by the current administration that it intends to take steps toward increasing noncommuter ridership.

A focus on commuters is an important component of a mass transit strategy, but a visionary strategic plan should also seek to expand noncommuter ridership. These riders form an integral link in a transportation strategic plan and the convenience of the system is what will appeal to them. Indeed, what Maryland family would pass up the opportunity to forgo the hassle and expense of driving to and parking in Baltimore if they could instead take the train downtown for less than the price of parking?

Even more compelling than the convenience of expanded hours is the potential for economic gain. Extending the MARC schedule through the weekend will bolster the tourism and entertainment industry in Baltimore, Washington and surrounding rail line communities.

The success of the Washington Metro with weekend hours that run as late as 2:30 a.m. is instructive. Metro's convenience has contributed to the nearly $15 billion in private development in areas which the rail services. In fact, 40 percent of retail and office space built between 1980 and 1990 in the District of Columbia was within walking distance of a Metro station. This potential for rail line community economic growth alone is reason enough to expand MARC's hours.

Such an expansion, with the potential to bring tourists to Baltimore from as far away as Virginia and Washington and the 21 rail-line communities in between is also somewhat self-sufficient. Studies cited by the American Public Transportation Association indicate that state and local governments realize a 4 percent to 16 percent gain in revenue as a result of increased business profits and personal income generated by government investment in public transportation. Not only does this expansion of MARC service require no new construction, the expansion may even pay for itself.

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Governor Ehrlich and Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan would be well served to rewrite the 2000 MTA Strategic Plan with a blueprint for using the vast resources the state already possesses. Expanding MARC service to the weekends and extending weekend hours will provide immediate benefits to the local economy through increased jobs, tax revenue, tourism and entertainment.

If Mr. Flanagan's recent assertions are true that the time for new construction has passed, then it is even more imperative for the state to capitalize on the infrastructure that already exists. MARC expansion is an opportunity for Mr. Ehrlich to prove he is committed to the economy and Maryland mass transit, and the time for expansion is now.

G. Scott McNeal is a law student at Case Western Reserve University School of Law and is a part-time Maryland resident.


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