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Expanding MARC service to Virginia: Not as simple as it sounds | COMMENTARY

MARC's Penn Line ends at Washington's Union Station but what if commuter trains could travel further South, perhaps even linking Central Maryland with Amazon's second headquarters? That's a possibility now being studied by the Maryland Department of Transportation and others.
MARC's Penn Line ends at Washington's Union Station but what if commuter trains could travel further South, perhaps even linking Central Maryland with Amazon's second headquarters? That's a possibility now being studied by the Maryland Department of Transportation and others. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

What if you could board a MARC rail commuter train in Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station and an hour and 15 minutes later get off within walking distance of Amazon’s second headquarters in Northern Virginia? That’s not so far-fetched. MARC’s Penn Line already delivers passengers from Baltimore to Washington’s Union station in about an hour. Arlington County is tantalizingly close. Even simply extending MARC service to L’Enfant Plaza with its easy connections to five (count them, five) Metro subway lines as well as the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) would be a fantastic advancement. And remember, those are high-paying jobs at the end of this journey: HQ2 alone is expected to add 25,000 jobs to Pentagon City with average salaries around $150,000 per year. And it’s no longer some distant pipe dream. Construction on the complex is expected to start soon and to be finished in 2023.

Small wonder that no fewer than 34 members of the House of Delegates have sponsored legislation to require the Maryland Transit Administration to negotiate with the District of Columbia, VRE and the Commonwealth of Virginia to extend MARC into Alexandria. The legislation, House Bill 1236, doesn’t force the MTA to fulfill that mission exactly, but it does expect officials to reach a written agreement between parties and report back to the General Assembly on Dec. 1 of this year and next on how a pilot program can best be done and at what cost.

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The problem here is not with the concept but with the method. As it turns out, the Maryland Department of Transportation has already been exploring the opportunities to extend MARC service toward Virginia, but the challenges are numerous and potentially costly, according to testimony submitted last week to the House Environment and Transportation Committee. It isn’t as if there are a bunch of empty, unused tracks waiting to host MARC trains. A major VRE expansion (some of it involving CSX right-of-way) is now underway but will take years to complete and, incidentally, is expected to disrupt existing service. There’s a renovation at Union Station that is also expected to, at least temporarily, inconvenience southbound trains. Amtrak doesn’t expect repairs to be completed until 2025. And that’s not even considering how much it might cost, particularly if it means a new rail bridge over the Potomac River.

This is why it’s usually unwise for lawmakers to pick and choose transportation projects that deserve to be studied whether it’s public transit, airports, tunnels or highways. That’s the job of regional and state planning staff. It’s then the responsibility of the governor of the state to propose a Consolidated Transportation Program that outlines what projects should be funded over the next six years. Lawmakers get a say, too, particularly when it’s time to authorize the capital budget. If, for example, Gov. Larry Hogan wants a new infusion of money for transportation spending, he’ll need their votes. There’s a give and take. Eventually, a plan is developed with both state legislators and local governments to set priorities.

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We appreciate the frustration in Annapolis, however. Governor Hogan’s transportation priorities have been centered on the Washington area. His legacy in Baltimore is chiefly the cancellation of the $2.9 billion Red Line five years ago. Watching Virginia invest in VRE, including the $3.7 billion deal struck with CSX last December to expand passenger service from Northern Virginia into D.C., is frustrating to watch from afar. MARC clearly has untapped potential. Meanwhile, the MTA is in the national spotlight not for quality service or for expansion plans but because its buses and trains break down far more often than its counterparts in cities across the nation, according to a recent analysis of Federal Transit Administration data by the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

Here’s what Baltimore job-seekers really need — the advocacy of Transportation Secretary Gregory Slater in much the same way as former Port of Baltimore Executive Director James White was a tireless supporter of the renovation of the Howard Street Tunnel. Mr. White recognized years ago how a “taller” tunnel could create thousands of jobs by accommodating double-stacked containers going to and from the port. Eventually, the governor came on board and now it’s moving forward. We would ask Secretary Slater to look at what ails Baltimore and see, not just violent crime, but the lack of economic opportunity. Housing the next generation of well-paid tech workers linked to jobs by commuter train sounds like a growth industry. Mandating a study won’t get that job done, but having an administration that truly understands the importance of such a MARC expansion could.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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