Last week presented the sort of opportunity that elected officials crave. As Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the gas tax increase into law, he announced a slew of new Maryland transportation projects — $1.2 billion in all — that can now move forward to relieve congestion, make roads safer and stimulate economic development.
And while all of them, from widening U.S. 29 in Howard County to designing several new light rail lines in the Washington and Baltimore areas, have their constituencies and benefits, none is likely to reap more immediate rewards than expanding MARC commuter rail operations, including allowing Penn Line trains to run on weekends.
That's not only because connecting Washington with Baltimore is worthwhile — although that's certainly the case. Increasingly, Charm City is attracting people who work in Washington but want to live in a more affordable community, and MARC trains remain one of the best ways to commute to a job. Saturday and Sunday service will be helpful in that regard (not everyone has weekends off), and it will serve the tourist attractions in both cities. Successful commuter rail systems ranging from the Long Island Railroad to Chicago's Metra run on weekends.
The fact is, MARC has developed into a highly cost-effective form of public transportation. The system serves an average of nearly 36,000 riders per day, the highest in its history, compared to Maryland Transit Administration bus ridership that's down so far this fiscal year and light rail ridership that's stagnant. Ridership on the Penn Line between Washington and Baltimore is up about 8 percent this year.
MARC's farebox recovery rate is the best within the MTA. Sales of MARC tickets and passes easily pay for more than half of the system's operating cost — the General Assembly's often-stated goal for all public transit systems. Fare increases generally haven't deterred MARC riders. They crave expanded service, more parking spaces around train stations and improved reliability.
That's why it's disappointing (although not terribly surprising) to read comments from critics like Del. Michael Smigiel Sr. who view a greater public investment in MARC as somehow harmful to their constituents. The Cecil County Republican told The Sun that MARC will "be operating at a loss, and they'll be expecting the rural areas to subsidize it."
That's not exactly true, of course. The perception of transit as running at a loss while other forms of transportation do not is wrongheaded. Maryland spends billions of dollars on toll-free state and local roads, but that money isn't perceived as an operating "loss" even though such projects are financed with long-term borrowing. Nor is Cecil County unserved by transit (including rail); nor are his constituents hurt when jobs and economic opportunity come to Baltimore.
Delegate Smigiel and other Republicans opposed the 13-to-20-cent gas tax increase that is helping finance the MARC expansion as well as pay for billions of dollars in new transportation projects across the state. We understand the politics of that. But even they must concede that there's a tremendous payoff that comes from these investments.
The difference between buying a ticket on MARC or buying one on Amtrak, the only other rail service between Baltimore and Washington, is considerable. Where a MARC ticket may cost $14 round-trip, one on Amtrak may cost $32 or more. The discount is even greater when you consider using a monthly pass — as most of MARC's daily commuters do.
If that attracts more professionals to live in Baltimore and commute in Washington, if it boosts weekend visits to the Inner Harbor or other tourist attractions, if it lowers unemployment and creates jobs, there's a payoff not only for Baltimore but for all of Maryland. Baltimore-area residents pay far more in taxes than the residents of Cecil County, yet would they begrudge that part of the state a new bridge or interchange? One hopes not.
Maryland has a good thing going in MARC. It's possible only because Amtrak and CSX have already invested huge sums in rail lines on which commuter trains can operate. Not every city is so fortunate to have that opportunity, and it would be foolish not to take advantage, particularly given the region's continuing problems with traffic congestion.