Md. lawmakers overturn Hogan’s veto and push for expanded MARC service

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Maryland passed legislation to expedite railroad projects and expand commuter train operations as the state legislature on Saturday overruled Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) veto.

The measure, the Maryland Regional Rail Transformation Act, advances a plan aimed at extending MARC trains beyond Union Station in the district and into Virginia in the coming years, and requires Maryland to accelerate railroad project planning, which could consume federal infrastructure funds.

“We have a unique opportunity to access billions of dollars at the federal level … and we felt that Maryland really had no plans to take advantage of that,” Del said. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery), the main sponsor of the Legislature. “This bill very specifically prescribes actual investments. We wanted there to be concrete steps so that we could use the federal funds.”

The $1 trillion infrastructure package signed into law by President Biden in November is expected to provide a boost to the Washington metro area, which is set to receive at least $18 billion in roads and transit over five years, according to documents from the Transportation Department . The law also allocates $66 billion to rail, while states will have access to billions more in grants.

The Maryland Regional Rail Transformation Act builds on a 2020 bill that required the state to investigate extending MARC south to Alexandria to better connect Maryland and Virginia and allow Maryland commuters to ride a seat to jobs in Northern Virginia. The bill also mandated a similar agreement with Delaware and state rail companies to fill a service gap between Perryville and Newark, Delaware.

The legislation, passed by both chambers with bipartisan support, requires the Maryland Transit Administration to present specific investment plans for both rail expansion and other improvements identified in the 2020 legislation. Such plans, Solomon said, would guide improvements to make pass-through operations a reality.

The Baltimore Station overhaul will help speed trains through the nation’s busiest rail corridor

Hogan vetoed the bill on Friday, citing tax concerns. Almost $14 million would have to be diverted from existing transit projects to implement the legislation, Hogan said in a letter to General Assembly leadership. He said the measure would set a “dangerous precedent” as the state transportation agency “must prepare investment plans and finalize the design of MARC projects on an accelerated schedule” without first securing the support of host railroads.

“While I support the intent of this legislation to improve transit, as my record investments in transit to date have demonstrated, it must be done in a tax-responsible manner and in a manner that does not limit the MDOT’s ability to adapt to evolving conditions,” Hogan said.

Solomon said the state could use general funds to fund legislation instead of using allocations from other projects.

The legislation provides funding for several railroad projects, including new stations on the Penn Line at Elkton in Cecil County and at Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital in East Baltimore, and upgrades to Germantown Station on the Brunswick Line.

The bill also requires the Maryland Transit Administration to add three full-time positions dedicated to planning and programming capital projects and ensuring the agency can utilize federal funds.

The state is also required to produce a review of existing train operations next year and identify future service expansions, including lunchtime, weekend, evening, through and two-way service. The current MARC train service supports commuter travel, with most trains going into DC in the morning and out of the city in the afternoon. The Penn Line, which runs from Baltimore to DC, is the only one of the system’s three lines that operates bi-directionally and on weekends.

As workers make fewer office trips, mass transit systems are struggling to fill empty seats

Like most U.S. transit systems, MARC has experienced a drop in ridership during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s still down about 70 percent compared to 2019, even as more offices reopened this spring.

But supporters of the MARC law, which goes into effect on July 1, said investments in rail are crucial to attracting back passengers and making the transit suitable for all types of journeys – not just commuting.

The bill “is a first step towards more service hours, more locations served and more flexibility,” said Miriam Schoenbaum, a board member of the Transit Action Committee that supported the measure.

Proponents also say the expansion of MARC, particularly with through-services to Virginia, is critical to the future of the region’s economy and would respond to an influx of development and jobs across the Potomac River — namely, the growth of Amazon’s second headquarters in Crystal City .

Joe McAndrew, who oversees transportation issues for the Greater Washington Partnership, made up of executives between Richmond and Baltimore, said the Maryland Legislature is “bold” and will “advance the vision of a seamless metropolitan area rail network from Baltimore to Richmond.”

The bill, which went into effect last year, required the state to conduct a pilot program in which MARC trains would share tracks with the Virginia Railway Express to serve L’Enfant Plaza, Crystal City and Alexandria. The MTA said in December that service will not be possible before the expected expansion of the Long Bridge, which connects the district and Virginia, and will be expanded to double the capacity for rail service across the Potomac.

Solomon said he hopes the measure enacted Saturday will ensure the state is ready to send trains across the Potomac when the new railroad bridge, which is expected to be operational by 2030, is built.

The legislation comes as several other railroad projects ramp up in the state, including Amtrak’s $150 million revamp of Baltimore Penn Station, home of the MARC Penn Line, and a plan to complete the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnels over the next decade at a cost of $4 billion to replace, which would remove a major bottleneck for Amtrak, MARC trains and commercial rail travel in the Northeast.

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