Responding to pressure from the General Assembly, the Ehrlich administration jettisoned yesterday the Maryland Transit Administration's plan to close four lightly used MARC stations, including the historic depot serving Relay and St. Denis.
Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan explained the reversal by pointing to the anticipated passage of a bill blocking the closings of that passenger rail station and those in Jessup, Dickerson and Boyds. The St. Denis-Relay and Jessup stations are on the Camden Line, and Boyds and Dickerson are on the Brunswick Line.
The Senate version of the bill won unanimous approval from the Finance Committee on Thursday despite Flanagan's opposition at a hearing. The House version had attracted a diverse group of co-sponsors, including senior Republican delegates from Montgomery and Frederick counties.
"It was clear to me the bill was going to pass," Flanagan said. He added that it would be unfair to leave riders uncertain about the closings, which had been scheduled for March 6. He said he would appoint an advisory committee of MARC riders to review the stations and other service issues.
The three passengers on the train from Washington who got off at St. Denis-Relay at 6:14 p.m. yesterday said they were happy the station would remain open.
"For me, it's a godsend because our family is down to one car," said Tim Prendergast of St. Denis, who walks to and from the station.
Lisa Clayton, who lives in Canton, said she drives to St. Denis to catch the train to avoid paying for parking in Baltimore.
"It's a one-year reprieve," Prendergast said. "Hopefully we can extend it."
Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. hailed the move, saying it was "a great victory for the Relay-St. Denis community, and that means it was a great victory for Baltimore County."
Smith, and members of the local legislative delegation, led a protest of the planned closings at the St. Denis-Relay station Wednesday morning. He said 65 to 70 people attended the rally.
The station serving the two southwestern Baltimore County communities is one of the oldest railroad stops in the United States -- dating to the 1830s. It was part of the original railroad line between Baltimore and Ellicott City.
The announcement that the MTA would close the St. Denis-Relay station had raised eyebrows because the community borders Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s political backyard -- near his boyhood home of Arbutus.
"I scratch my head, quite frankly. I don't understand it," Smith said.
Del. James E. Malone Jr. said he and the area's other Democratic legislators, Del. Steven J. DeBoy Sr. and Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, held a meeting at which they urged residents to write the governor's office directly. "There are a lot of people who live in that area who moved to that area to use the train," Malone said.
Flanagan said he hadn't heard from Ehrlich on the subject except for a general admonition to improve and expand MARC service.
When the MTA announced plans to close the stations late last year, it said ridership at St. Denis-Relay, Boyds and Dickerson was running at about 10 people a day each way, with lighter usage of the Jessup station. After public hearings, the MTA announced last month that it would go through with the planned closings.
The legislation approved by the Finance Committee would bar the MTA from closing MARC stations before March 2007 and tells the agency to report to the governor and legislature on the impact of the closings. The bill would require the MTA to study how it could promote ridership at the stations and to justify its contention that expensive renovations would be needed to keep them open.
"I intend to carry through with both the letter and spirit of the legislation, which I expect will be enacted," Flanagan said. He added that the proposed station closings had been part of an effort to improve efficiencies to meet a goal in MARC's contract with CSX Transportation that could let the state run more trains.