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Pandemic only underscores how Maryland must pursue better connection of Baltimore and Northern Virginia by rail | COMMENTARY

Construction is halted due to rain on Thursday, April 30, 2020 in Arlington, Va. For residents of the northern Virginia neighborhood where Amazon is building a new headquarters, the loudest construction work is occurring at the worst possible time. The relentless bang and clang of piledriving work has been going for several weeks, all while residents are forced to endure the noise as they endure stay-at-home orders due to coronavirus. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat)
Construction is halted due to rain on Thursday, April 30, 2020 in Arlington, Va. For residents of the northern Virginia neighborhood where Amazon is building a new headquarters, the loudest construction work is occurring at the worst possible time. The relentless bang and clang of piledriving work has been going for several weeks, all while residents are forced to endure the noise as they endure stay-at-home orders due to coronavirus. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat) (Matthew Barakat/AP)

This Thursday marks the veto deadline for legislation approved this spring by the Maryland General Assembly to do three things related to the Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) service — to reach agreement with Virginia and Delaware to provide service to those states, to report on those negotiations to the legislature and to study the feasibility of a rail connection between Baltimore’s Penn and Camden line stations. The measure passed both the Senate and the House of Delegates by lopsided and bipartisan margins. Normally, one would assume this would make House Bill 1236 an easy call for Gov. Larry Hogan to sign. But given the governor’s stated opposition to new state spending in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic downturn it has wrought, that signature is far from guaranteed. Yet it is precisely because of these circumstances that the legislation is now more important than ever.

Here’s the crux of the issue. Governor Hogan has correctly grasped that hard times have not just arrived, they are destined to get harder. The shutdown of so much of the economy, both in the Free State and beyond, has already translated into job losses on a historic scale, yet some other unpleasant shoes are about to drop as even the most essential of businesses suffer and government tightens its belt. How best to position Maryland for an economic recovery ought to be a top priority. But in the process, the state can’t afford to abandon its long-term interests in sustainable jobs and connecting people to them. Rarely does such an opportunity present itself as clearly as the growth of Northern Virginia as a tech center that might well be served by commuter rail.

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Remember HQ2, Amazon’s second headquarters complex being developed in Pentagon City? The project continues to move forward despite COVID-19 with the first two 22-story towers slated to be completed by 2023. Eventually, Amazon is bringing 25,000 jobs with average salaries of about $150,000 a year. That project attracted lucrative taxpayer-underwritten offers from all over the country including from Governor Hogan. But Amazon’s decision to build in Virginia was far from a total loss for Maryland given the site is just 42 miles from downtown Baltimore. The problem is that when there’s not a pandemic, those are some seriously congested highway miles between the two points. The solution is commuter rail.

Not exotic magnetic levitation or bullet trains but the same technology thousands of Marylanders have been using for decades. With some infrastructure investment, it’s entirely possible that MARC trains now stopping at Washington’s Union Station could continue on to L’Enfant Plaza and under (or over) the Potomac River to Arlington County. Time from Penn Station to the doors of HQ2? Perhaps as little as one hour and 15 minutes which, especially by D.C.'s traffic-clogged standards, is far from shabby. Throw in the Baltimore area’s more affordable housing and its hipness to millennials, who prefer to live in cities and often have less interest in cars than their parents, and there’s a golden opportunity to capitalize on HQ2 without all the tax giveaways previously contemplated.

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Yet that has to start with HB 1236 and its $1.5 million annual planning money. The path to Virginia is far from obstacle-free. It could be that it makes more sense to provide MARC service to L’Enfant Plaza and then have Metro subways cars complete the trip. But we can’t know that for sure unless the Maryland Transit Administration does its homework. Governor Hogan may also be skeptical that Maryland’s Consolidated Transportation Program will have the construction money to bring those plans to fruition. But given how even President Donald Trump has expressed support for more spending on public infrastructure, this is a misguided viewpoint. The pandemic doesn’t mean Maryland should avoid such investments, it means it should be prudent. The payoff of connecting Central Maryland to such a flourishing jobs center can’t be ignored.

Virginia has gotten on board the commuter rail push with Gov. Ralph Northam last December inking a $3.7 billion deal with CSX to expand Virginia Railway Express (VRE) service from L’Enfant Plaza to Richmond. Why can’t Maryland pursue similar ambitions? On Monday, Mr. Hogan’s chief spokesman declined to comment on his plans for House Bill 1236. Whatever the Republican governor’s reluctance to invest in public transit in Baltimore, he must recognize a prized investment opportunity when he sees one. To abandon the project without even knowing its cost or feasibility would be beyond foolish, particularly given the enormous potential return for the state.

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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