Study to Weigh Feasibility Of White Plains Rail Line

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007

Maryland transportation officials will soon begin a detailed corridor study to construct a light-rail line from White Plains to Metro's Branch Avenue Station, Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari and his top aides told Charles County's commissioners during a meeting Monday in La Plata.

Saying that Waldorf has some of the worst gridlock in the state, Porcari announced his commitment to exploring mass transit options for Southern Maryland commuters. But Gov. Martin O'Malley's transportation chief came with more sobering news: There is a backlog of about $40 billion in unfunded transportation projects across the state.

Porcari said he did not know when the state would be able to finance capital projects in Southern Maryland, including constructing a bypass of Route 301 in Waldorf and expanding the Gov. Harry Nice Bridge in southern Charles.

"It's no secret that the capital program we have this year has no new programs," Porcari said. "We have been struggling, to be blunt about it."

Complicating matters, Porcari said, is that the federal transportation trust fund, the primary source of federal dollars for transportation projects, is expected to run dry by 2009.

"We have the equivalent of a perfect storm here," Porcari said.

The state's top transportation priority is maintaining existing roads and bridges before investing in new infrastructure, Porcari said. Keeping pace with maintenance has become very expensive, he said, as costs have soared for materials such as steel, cement, asphalt and aggregate.

"The transportation system has gotten larger, it's gotten older and it's gotten much more difficult to maintain," Porcari said.

After his morning meeting with Charles commissioners, Porcari traveled to Montgomery County for a news conference with O'Malley (D). There, the governor unveiled his proposal to spend nearly $400 million a year more on transportation priorities to be funded in part by an increase in the gasoline tax.

Ronald L. Freeland, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which manages the state's toll bridges, told the Charles commissioners that his agency has made progress on a future expansion of the Nice Bridge, which carries Route 301 across the Potomac River. Freeland said he has reached out to officials in King George County, Va., the Navy facility at Dahlgreen, Va., and the Virginia Department of Transportation.

"There's considerable interest and support for this project," Freeland said. "We're not really receiving any resistance from Virginia."

Southern Maryland officials seemed pleased with Porcari's report, particularly his announcement that the state will study a future corridor for a new light-rail line. Porcari's report comes a week after Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) met with Charles commissioners and signaled her support for a light-rail line into Waldorf.

The rail line likely would follow Route 301 and Route 5 from White Plains, through Waldorf and into Prince George's County, officials said. The state's corridor study will identify land that Charles and Prince George's need to preserve for a future rail line and stations.

Also this week, state transportation officials outlined plans for a major expansion of MARC, the state's commuter rail service, that would triple capacity over the next three decades. The MARC expansion plans, which include extending service to Northern Virginia and Delaware, do not include bringing service to Southern Maryland.

But that's perfectly fine, said Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D-St. Charles). He said Southern Maryland doesn't need MARC service or Metro service, but rather would benefit from light-rail passenger cars similar to the trolley-type cars in downtown Baltimore.

"If we were to extend MARC to Waldorf, or if we were to extend Metro's Green Line to Waldorf, that would be a spark for more rapid growth than we are prepared to handle in Southern Maryland," Hodge said.

"We're on a separate track here to do something that is specifically designed on a scale for the needs of our residents," he added.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company