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MARC commuter trains cross the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers to enter Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. But the town is one of several in the state facing a loss of two-thirds of its commuter rail service unless West Virginia officials come up with $2 million to cover operating costs.
MARC commuter trains cross the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers to enter Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. But the town is one of several in the state facing a loss of two-thirds of its commuter rail service unless West Virginia officials come up with $2 million to cover operating costs. (Shutterstock)

The Maryland Area Regional Commuter train or MARC service might be among the most cost-effective transit systems ever developed in the Mid-Atlantic. It’s ranked ninth in the nation with ridership of 9.2 million annually, which is higher than places like Seattle, Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth. Its trains are among the fastest of any system in the country (reaching speeds of up to 125 miles per hour on the Penn Line between D.C. and Baltimore), which is not bad for a system that dates back to the 19th century B&O. And its farebox recovery rate (more than half of operating costs are covered by fares) puts other local fixed-rail transit systems to shame. Any community would be happy to have MARC service yet several may soon be losing most of it, and that would be a tragedy.

Last week, authorities in Jefferson County, W. Va., decided not to commit any local funds to retaining MARC service in the state’s eastern panhandle. The MARC Brunswick Line, which terminates at Washington’s Union Station, runs west through small towns like Point of Rocks and Brunswick to three stops in the Mountain State — Harpers Ferry, Duffields and Martinsburg. It’s no exaggeration to describe the half-dozen trains that serve the area as an economic lifeline. They help connect a region with modest job opportunities to the much more prosperous nation’s capital. Earlier this year, the Maryland Transit Administration announced that MARC service to West Virginia would be curtailed unless that state forked over $3.5 million to cover its fair share of operating costs for the current fiscal year instead of the $1.5 million it provided MARC this past year. Maryland was, in essence, tired of subsidizing out-of-state riders.

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Lawmakers in West Virginia were apparently unmoved, agreeing to pay just $1.1 million and left it up to local governments (Jefferson County included) to come up with $300,000 more. Unless some last-minute, behind-the-scenes negotiation bears fruit, the state and local governments will likely fall short, which means MARC could soon reduce daily service to the panhandle from six trains to two. That downsizing was originally set to take place on Nov. 4. But last week, MARC issued a reprieve notifying its customers that the current schedule will remain in effect until Nov. 30. In a written statement to The Sun, MTA officials said the agency “remains open to discussions with the West Virginia Rail Authority on any concerns regarding the proposed service change.” The MTA has also promised to give 30-days notice on future schedule changes.

That leaves the ball in West Virginia’s court, but things don’t look hopeful. To be clear, it isn’t as if West Virginians are disinterested in MARC service so much as they don’t have excess tax dollars lying around. West Virginia has the lowest annual household median income of any state in the nation and the fourth highest poverty rate, according to U.S. Census data. Maryland, by contrast, has the highest household median income and the second lowest poverty rate (New Hampshire having the lowest of all).

Yet it’s one thing to subsidize in-state rail lines that out-of-state residents use, it’s quite another to provide service well outside a state. Martinsburg is close to 40 miles beyond the Maryland border. Given Maryland’s other transportation needs from ameliorating Chesapeake Bay Bridge backups during a two-year maintenance project to addressing Baltimore’s diminishing transit capitol budget, it’s not surprising that the Hogan administration put down its foot (as it has been threatening since 2017). Unfortunately, it’s a lose-lose proposition. What happens to those stranded West Virginia commuters if they no no longer have a MARC option? Either it means crowding the parking lots of Maryland stations or driving on the already-congested Interstates 70 and 270 corridor. That would result in potentially longer rush hour delays for Maryland motorists using the same route and an uptick in polluting tailpipe emissions for all of us.

Clearly, now would be a great time for President Donald Trump and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to step in and help cover the shortfall. Federal intervention would make a lot of sense in this case, particularly given West Virginia’s struggling economy and the interstate nature of rail service. Mr. Trump carried West Virginia in the 2016 election by the highest percentage of any state in the nation (68.5%) with a pledge of reviving the coal industry. That hasn’t happened. For for a relative pittance, the president could stand up for good-paying jobs, for the welfare of the 250 or so daily commuters who rely on MARC service from West Virginia, and maintain his continued popularity in the Mountain State.

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