Maryland's MARC commuter rail system has reached a critical junction. Either it stays semi-derailed as the overcrowded, underfunded, oft-delayed transit stepchild it is today or Maryland capitalizes on its potential to help revitalize Baltimore, relieve traffic congestion and accommodate future growth, including the thousands of defense-related jobs headed for the state under the Pentagon's base realignment and closure plans.
The Maryland Transit Administration's new long-term comprehensive plan for MARC outlines what's needed for that latter vision - and it's no train ride in the park. State officials have yet to release numbers, but the investment required is likely to run to several billion dollars or more over the next quarter-century, particularly if replacing Baltimore's aging tunnels is included.
And money alone may not be the biggest hurdle. MARC operates at the pleasure of CSX Corp. and Amtrak, which own the tracks. In the case of Amtrak, that means mustering federal support. CSX could be even tougher to convince; it doesn't like passenger rail to interfere with its freight schedule.
But what's exciting about the MTA plan is that it envisions MARC as a much more serious transportation alternative than it is today. Not only would passenger capacity triple but trains would run more frequently and more reliably. MARC might also play a new role: to better connect Baltimore's somewhat scattershot transit systems.
Is such an undertaking worth it? Unquestionably. MARC is the most cost-efficient transit service available in Baltimore. Riders pay for about 60 percent of its daily operating expenses. Subway, bus and light rail patrons pay for little more than one-third. MARC ridership has grown to record levels despite all its problems - it's about 3,000 passengers above capacity.
Adding capacity means more than buying more locomotives and trains, although both are needed. It would involve acquiring right-of-way and building track, crossovers and signaling, renovating stations, creating storage and maintenance facilities, and expanding parking.
Maryland has had MARC on the cheap to date, but those days are numbered - if the public wants more from the system. Many of the plan's specifics should - and will - be debated in the years ahead. Funds are limited, particularly from the federal government. But this much is certain: An expanded MARC offers a sensible, cost-effective and energy-efficient form of transportation. Maryland's leaders ought to get on board.