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So, if you were a passenger on a commuter train, would you prefer to stand or take an uncomfortable seat?

That was the choice the Maryland Transit Administration had to make on behalf of its MARC riders. It came down on the side of providing more seats on the new double-decker MARC cars the MTA acquired from Virginia Railway Express.

MARC rider Summer Gonter of Baltimore wasn't happy with the result. In an e-mail, she said:

"I've just had the unfortunate experience to ride in what I think may be the new MARC double-decker cars. The seating is awful. It's all molded plastic, and the lush leg room MARC passengers are used to is gone. Individual armrests are gone. Space in general is gone. I was reading a hardback book and barely had room to open it. I could not lift my purse up from the floor without disturbing my seat companion. The aisles appear to be smaller too.

"WHY? WHY? WHY? Are these the cars they bought from VRE? If so, I have no doubts now about why they sold them off. ... But if this is the new trend with MARC seating (were they just new seats in an old car??) then I'm horrified by the direction we're going."

Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, provided the following explanation. With apologies to Cahalan, I've taken the liberty of editing his note for greater brevity.

"The 13 new bi-level cars are identical to 50 already owned by MTA because they were acquired by VRE as part of MTA's contract with the manufacturer. When VRE decided to sell the cars as part of a program to increase the uniformity of its fleet, MTA successfully negotiated to purchase them.

"This was a rare opportunity because the coaches were built to MTA specifications, including the ability to travel at high speeds on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor as well as fit though the B&P; Tunnels in Baltimore. MTA made safety and cosmetic improvements so they would match the existing fleet. This work was completed in June 2009, and the cars were placed in service on the Camden and Brunswick lines. MTA could not operate the cars on the Penn Line until they were approved for travel at 125 mph. MTA received this approval on Nov. 1 and immediately began placing the cars in Penn Line train sets. As of Nov. 12 all Penn Line train sets are comprised of bi-level cars. This has added 300 seats each day as well as additional standing room.

"Your reader is correct that the spacing of the rows of seats on the new cars is tighter than the existing fleet. The seats and aisles are the same width. When VRE acquired the cars originally, they requested tighter row spacing, which yields an additional five seats per car compared to the MARC seating configuration. While modifying the new cars for MARC service, MTA did explore the possibility of replacing the seats and installing seating similar to the existing MARC cars. This would have required a different configuration of bolts which would have meant considerable cost and delay getting the cars into service. MTA decided not to make these changes at this time. We will consider reconfiguring the seats when the cars receive their mid-life overhaul in several years. In the meantime riders get the benefit of additional seats."

On the face of it, I'd say MTA made the right call. Of course, I haven't actually occupied the new seats. Here's the test: If you continue to sit in them when there are no other seats to be found, the MTA is right. If they're so bad you'd rather stand, the MTA may have made the wrong call.

Three responses

In response to last week's column urging Baltimore elected officials to weigh in with the Maryland Transportation Authority to protect their constituents from any move to shift the burden of tolls away from users of the Intercounty Connector, I heard from precisely three of them.

They were Baltimore City Councilman Jim Kraft, state Sen. George W. Della and Howard County Del. Elizabeth Bobo, each of whom expressed what I took as an intention to weigh in on the issue.

With the Montgomery County Council going on the record in favor of below-market-rate tolls on the ICC, Baltimore-area residents have every right to expect their representatives to push back against an idea that would put the authority under pressure to make up lost revenue at other toll facilities.

Elected officials who do register their views on ICC tolls with the authority stand a good chance of getting some cheap publicity either here or on the Getting There blog by sending a copy of their correspondence to michael.dresser@baltsun.com.

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