Train riders rail against parking

The Baltimore Sun

Ridership has increased on the MARC train's Penn Line from Perryman to Washington by nearly 25 percent this year. To meet demand, three new trains have been added, and the service is looking to add to its fleet of bi-level passenger cars.

But, while more people are taking the train from Aberdeen, fewer are finding nearby places to park.

"Parking is a nightmare," said R.V. Scott, who commutes from Aberdeen to a job in Washington. "I sometimes park on the grass. I have gotten ticketed. I have missed the train several times while looking for a space, and then I am late for work. But what can I do? My alternative is to drive with all that traffic and the cost of gas."

At an open house last week in the city, Maryland Department of Transportation officials outlined plans for two new parking lots, a reconfiguration and improvement of an existing lot and more on-street parking near the station.

The project would give commuters nearly 100 more spaces, for a total of 293.

About 220 riders a day board the train in Aberdeen, and MARC is considering additional service to the city's station, said Harry Romano, project manager at MTA. Parking issues have to be addressed, he said.

"Our ridership demand is high, and our parking problems are chronic," he said.

Nearly 50 people attended the open house. But, although final design of the project is likely to be completed this fall, the requisite environmental studies, federal approvals and consultations with Amtrak, which owns the tracks, will delay construction for about two years.

"Our goal is ASAP, but realistically we are looking at spring of 2010," said Sara D. Finnerin, project engineer with the consulting company that is designing the parking project.

Shirley Kern of Aberdeen said, "I am sad to see this take so long to get started. It is definitely needed. If I use the train, I have my husband drop me off because there are just no spaces."

James C. Richardson, Harford's director of economic development, called the parking plan for Aberdeen a short-term solution. The county has recently launched a study that looks at expanding mass transit, both rail and bus lines, to meet the transportation demands of BRAC, the nationwide military base expansion that will bring as many as 10,000 jobs to Aberdeen Proving Ground. If commuters to those jobs disembark at the station on U.S. 40, they will need a shuttle service to take them to and from the post.

"My concern is accommodating everything that is coming with BRAC," said Richardson.

More parking cannot come too soon for Alan Sweatman, who often drives his wife to the station in the morning so she can avoid the parking hassle on her way to work in Baltimore.

"At 6:30 a.m., the lots are full," he said.

Lorie McCollum, who leaves her car at home and walks to the station, said the spaces are gone even earlier.

"I would get here by 6 a.m.," she said. "If not, I had to fish around for a spot. As a commuter, I am disappointed at the lack of willingness to expand mass transit."

The improvements are long overdue, said Don Pollard, who lives on East Bel Air Avenue, where many commuters end up parking.

"Our street sees bumper-to-bumper parking on both sides," he said.

As gas prices continue to rise, more commuters will rely on the train, and 100 more parking spaces might not be enough, several residents said.

"This will help with the immediate problem, but it's a stopgap to what we need," said Art Helton, an Aberdeen business owner. "We need to expand the rail service as well as the parking. There should be more stops and more trains and a more global outlook."

MARC has recently purchased 26 diesel locomotives at a cost of $3.6 million each. Those will replace 22 of the 35 locomotives now in use and will add to the fleet. The system is searching the country for more cars, which, if new, can cost about $2.5 million. MARC has 122 bi-level cars, each of which can carry 150 passengers.

"We have standees on most trains," said Frank Fulton Jr., a MARC spokesman. "We are aware of the chronic parking issues, even from our own employees who use the service. But, in many areas, we are landlocked and can't expand."

MARC added three trains to the Penn Line in February to relieve crowding on the route and is tackling the parking problem at several stations.

"With the gas situation, our trains are overcrowded, and our parking facilities are out of space," Fulton said. "We are trying to expand where we can."

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