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Op-ed

Here’s how the Maryland legislature could improve MARC | GUEST COMMENTARY

The Maryland General Assembly should build on the historic federal infrastructure bill and pass legislation during the 2022 session to expand the Maryland Area Regional Commuter train service, or MARC.

The legislation could direct the Maryland Department of Transportation to implement the following initiatives, which will catalyze inclusive prosperity for Baltimore and Central Maryland:

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  • Working with Amtrak and CSX to increase track capacity between Baltimore and D.C.;
  • Connecting the Penn and Camden Lines so more MARC train sets can be stored and serviced;
  • Adding several 30-minute express MARC trains between D.C. and Baltimore (which the two initiatives above would make possible);
  • Ensuring the renovation of the West Baltimore MARC Station results in a modern, multi-modal, development-anchoring building;
  • And building a Bayview Station in East Baltimore.

That may sound like a lot, but most of these objectives are already in the Maryland Transit Administration’s MARC Growth and Investment Plan and the MARC Cornerstone Plan (pages 59, 61, and 63 outline capital projects for the Brunswick, Camden, and Penn Lines). Unfortunately, those plans are not being implemented despite the historic opportunity provided by the federal funds now available through the federal infrastructure bill.

The improvements listed above are crucial steps to raise Maryland’s economic competitiveness, expand access to good jobs, ensure inclusive growth and provide access to moderate and affordable housing. These are goals that the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance called for in its Let’s Get to Work agenda. More recently, the Greater Washington Partnership, a group of major regional employers, outlined similar goals in its Capital Region Rail Vision. GWP also called for bidirectional run-through service (allowing for one-seat rides in both directions between Maryland, D.C. and Virginia); more frequent trains and more express trains between core stations; a unified fare policy and Capital Region rail brand; and operational integration between the rail networks of Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. A February 2021 report from the Johns Hopkins 21st Century Cities Initiative also focused on the economic benefits of MARC express trains in particular.

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Without strategic capital investments in our regional train system — not to mention our subway, bus and paratransit systems — Maryland’s climate and equity goals are not credible. But with frequent 30-minute express MARC service to D.C., a renovated West Baltimore Station (as outlined by HUB West Baltimore CDC), and a new Bayview Station (and with these stations connected to the future Red Line and the Baltimore bus network), MARC would power inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

At the same time, Maryland must avoid shiny object distractions like the proposed $14 to $17 billion magnetic levitation train from Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood to D.C.’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. The maglev concept suffers from too many fatal flaws for it to qualify as serious public infrastructure.

First, it has a “first-mile problem”: The ride from Baltimore’s Cherry Hill to Mt. Vernon in D.C. is expected to take only 15 minutes, but most riders could not easily get to the Cherry Hill station without driving. By contrast, MARC already has three centrally located stations in Baltimore: Camden Station (on the Camden Line); and West Baltimore Station and Penn Station (both on the Penn Line).

Second, an expected average ticket price of $60 for a one-way journey would make maglev unaffordable for most Baltimoreans. Compare that to a $9 one-way ticket on any MARC train. By the way, the new MARC express train pilot on the Penn Line closes the distance from Union Station to Baltimore’s Penn Station (with a stop at BWI) in under 43 minutes — on existing infrastructure.

Third, although the Northeast Maglev website states that Japan has agreed in principle to pay $5 billion of the cost, much of the remainder would likely be funded by federal grants, diverting highly-constrained public funds to a privately owned project. This is money better invested toward the proven efficiencies of existing rail corridors.

To retain and attract residents, Maryland must invest in the backbone of its rail infrastructure and expand the MARC system. Europe has outstanding rail. China’s expansion of intercity rail in the last decade is a modern marvel. India is building a new rapid passenger rail network from New Delhi to neighboring cities. Closer to home, Philadelphia has an established regional rail system, and Virginia last year signed a $3.7 billion deal to double its passenger rail service within the decade. The federal infrastructure bill made historic sums of federal dollars available if states have plans that are ready to execute. Maryland has the plans; now we must commit to putting them to work.

Colin Beckman is a member of the all-volunteer Baltimore MARC Riders advocacy group and lives in Baltimore’s Greenmount West neighborhood. His email is beckman.colin@gmail.com.


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