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New regional rail vision aims to bring D.C., Maryland and Virginia closer together. But can it happen?

A view of the front of Union Station, an intermodal facility at Columbus Circle in Northeast Washington. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/for The Washington Post)
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A Maryland resident would be able to ride MARC commuter trains to a job in Northern Virginia, and a Virginia resident could catch the Virginia Railway Express on the weekends, then travel to Baltimore in a one-fare, one-seat trip as part of plan that aims to transform the region’s rail network.

An alliance of the Washington area’s top chief executives is pushing for Maryland and Virginia commuter trains to cross jurisdictions to provide service that would be more frequent and more interconnected.

A commuter train system that operates harmoniously regionwide isn’t wishful thinking, according to the Greater Washington Partnership, which is leading the effort. It could be achieved within a quarter-century, said the group, which has rallied support from transit advocates, the region’s passenger railroads and public- and private-sector groups.

A pledge by Virginia to prioritize rail travel and a measure in Maryland to pursue train service into Virginia set the stage for the regional vision. Backed by the chiefs of transportation in both states and the District, the proposal emerges as planners and elected leaders seek transit solutions to reduce congestion and meet environmental goals.

“The reality is we’ve outgrown our individual passenger transit systems in the region,” said John D. Porcari, a former Maryland transportation chief who serves on the Partnership’s mobility steering committee. “They should be interoperable. They should be seamless. And we can’t grow as a region if we don’t think in those terms.”

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The Partnership on Thursday is unveiling its plan for how to make commuter and intercity passenger rail a regional priority. The goal, officials said, is to bring the region behind a plan to convert commuter train systems — MARC and VRE — which focus on peak-hour service, into a network with high-frequency, all-day service that spans the region.

The 84-page report lays out how the group would make that happen: from the signing of an agreement for regional agencies to work collaboratively to strategies for how to achieve 15-minute train headways and how to pursue federal infrastructure funding as a region.

The report identifies a need for investments of up to $23 billion, including nearly $14 billion for revitalizing aging infrastructure, nearly $7 billion for station improvements and $287 million for fleet upgrades.

Tackling rail bottlenecks would be a priority along the corridor. That includes the $1.9 billion expansion of the 115-year-old Long Bridge over the Potomac River and the $4.5 billion replacement of the 148-year-old Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel in Baltimore — both priority projects for intercity and commuter train traffic in the Northeast.

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In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in late 2019 announced a $3.7 billion plan to revamp rail service over the next decade, which includes building a new Long Bridge by as early as 2027 and a new track in the Washington-Richmond corridor. Northam’s budget this year puts $50 million toward the program.

The investment in the Long Bridge will open opportunities for more rail traffic, allowing the expansion of Maryland train service into Virginia. The number of Amtrak trains operating in Virginia is expected to double by 2030, and Virginia Railway Express would be able to increase train frequency by 75 percent, while introducing weekend service by 2026.

In Maryland, a new law seeks to expand MARC commuter train service past Union Station into Virginia. It requires the Maryland Transit Administration to begin negotiations with the District, Virginia and the railroads that use and own the tracks to allow MARC trains to carry passengers into Arlington and Alexandria.

Maryland, Virginia and the District also have begun conversations about creating a regional group to focus on rail travel.

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Some transportation experts note the challenges of getting the region’s jurisdictions to agree on priorities. There are contrasts between the states: For example, Virginia is prioritizing investments in rail while Maryland has lagged.

The veto by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) of the MARC run-through legislation last year — which the legislature overrode in February — raised questions about his commitment to rail. Hogan, who cited the state’s pandemic-related financial challenges as the reason for the veto, has focused on the expansion of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270. Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said Tuesday that the governor supports run-through service.

Maryland budgeted $75.2 million for MARC rail improvements on the Camden, Brunswick and Penn lines in fiscal 2020, and $20.3 million for MARC coach and locomotive overhauls and replacements.

Some elected and transportation leaders said they see the corporate group as positioned to pull the region together. The Partnership was part of a coalition of business leaders that successfully pushed for dedicated funding for Metro from Virginia, the District and Maryland in 2018.

The group is urging action to make fleets and platforms compatible, citing the platform height differences at MARC and VRE stations. It also encourages fare integration so commuters from one jurisdiction to another can pay with one pass.

Among the biggest allies for the vision is Amtrak. The passenger railroad says the benefits of working together would extend far beyond the Washington region, affecting travel along the Northeast rail corridor.

Amtrak has made financial commitments to several projects in the region, including $90 million to remake Baltimore’s Penn Station and $944 million for the Virginia program. The railroad also is a proponent of the massive redevelopment of Union Station, a $10 billion private and public investment.

Jeffrey Ensor, who oversees projects in the Washington area for Amtrak, said the region would benefit from working together to advance rail investments.

“There’s a significant amount of investment that’s needed,” Ensor said. “But this [regional vision] is a great first step in terms of having a key set of leaders say, ‘Look, this investment is worth it and something that we should be doing to make our region more competitive and more equitable.’ ”

A better-coordinated system could result in improved access to jobs and housing, resulting in more equitable and inclusive growth, business leaders behind the project say. The group estimated that improved service would result in a 125 percent increase in rail ridership regionwide.

A separate economic analysis made by the Partnership predicts that the effort would lead to more than $40 billion of gross economic activity for the region, and upward of 200,000 jobs over 25 years. The investment would stimulate economic centers that have lacked significant growth, said Joe McAndrew, vice president for transportation at the Greater Washington Partnership.

For example, the L’Enfant Plaza station in Southwest Washington would see improvements that would lead to economic opportunity, organizers said. The plan calls for better connectivity between the commuter station, which now serves VRE, and the nearby Metro station, one of the busiest in the system.

“You would have MARC and VRE commuters with access to five Metro lines, so it could become a really strong commuter hub,” said David Zaidain, a transportation and urban planning leader at the D.C.-based company Gensler, which has done design for transportation projects in the region and created renderings of what the station could look like.

A recent study by the Transportation Planning Board at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments concluded that demand for such service exists. According to the report, by 2030, more than 16,000 trips a day would use run-through service, with the greatest demand in the corridor between Baltimore and Alexandria.

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Some transportation experts and elected leaders noted the timing of the proposal, which comes as the region has an advocate for passenger rail in the White House.

“President Biden is probably the biggest supporter of rail in the White House that we’ve had in decades,” said Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery), who led the MARC run-through legislation.

Biden, who commuted by train to and from Capitol Hill during his 36-year Senate career, is pushing a massive infrastructure bill expected to pour up to $3 trillion into repairing the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

Officials say the region is well positioned to compete for federal dollars for rail projects. Porcari, who served as deputy U.S. transportation secretary during the Obama administration, said it makes sense to tackle planning and funding as a region, just as the District, Maryland and Virginia came together for other regional transportation priorities, such as funding Metro and building the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge.

“The history of the region shows that on the issues that really matter, we do come together,” he said.

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