Maryland passed legislation to expedite rail projects and expand commuter train operations, as state lawmakers on Saturday overrode the veto of Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to access billions of dollars at the federal level … and we felt like Maryland really had no plans to take advantage of that,” said Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery), the lead sponsor of the legislation. “This bill very specifically mandates actual investments. We wanted there to be concrete steps for us to take advantage of the federal money.”
The $1 trillion infrastructure package that was signed into law by President Biden in November is expected to provide a boost across the greater Washington region, which is slated to receive at least $18 billion for roads and transit over five years, according to documents from the Transportation Department. The law also allocates $66 billion for rail, while states will have access to billions of dollars more in grants.
The Maryland Regional Rail Transformation Act builds upon a 2020 bill that required the state to study extending MARC south to Alexandria to better connect Maryland and Virginia and to give Maryland commuters the option of a one-seat ride to jobs in Northern Virginia. The bill also ordered a similar agreement with Delaware and train companies in the state to close a gap in service between Perryville and Newark, Del.
The legislation, which passed both houses with bipartisan support, requires the Maryland Transit Administration come up with specific investment plans for both rail expansions and other improvements identified in the 2020 legislation. Such plans, Solomon said, would guide improvements to realize the run-through operations.
Hogan vetoed the bill Friday, citing fiscal concerns. Implementing the legislation would require nearly $14 million to be pulled from existing transit projects, Hogan said in a letter to General Assembly leadership. He said the measure would set a “dangerous precedent” by requiring the state transportation agency “to produce investment plans and complete design of MARC projects on an expedited schedule” without first securing support from host railroads.
“While I am supportive of the intent of this legislation to improve transit, as demonstrated by my record-level investment in transit to date, it must be done in a fiscally responsible manner and in one that does not limit the MDOT’s ability to adapt to evolving conditions,” Hogan said.
Solomon said the state can use general funds to fund the legislation, rather than use allocations from other projects.
The legislation calls for the advancement of several rail projects, including new stations on the Penn Line at Elkton in Cecil County and Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital in East Baltimore as well as upgrades to the Germantown station on the Brunswick Line.
The bill also requires the Maryland Transit Administration to add three full-time jobs for planning and programming capital projects and ensuring the agency can leverage the federal funding.
The state is also required to produce a review next year of existing train operations and to identify future service expansions, including midday, weekend, evening, run-through and bidirectional service. Current MARC train service supports commuter travel, with most of the trains running to D.C. in the morning and out of the city in the afternoon. The Penn Line, which runs from Baltimore to D.C., is the only one of the system’s three lines that runs bidirectional and on weekends.
Like most U.S. transit systems, MARC has seen ridership plummet during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s still down about 70 percent compared with 2019, even as more offices reopened this spring.
Still, supporters of the MARC bill, which will go into effect July 1, said the investments in rail are critical to lure back riders and make transit suitable for all types of trips — not just commuting.
The bill “is a first step towards more service hours, more places served, and more flexibility,” said Miriam Schoenbaum, a board member of the Action Committee for Transit, which supported the measure.
Supporters also say expanding MARC, particularly with run-though service to Virginia, is critical to the future of the regional 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, composed of chief executives between Richmond and Baltimore, said the Maryland legislation is “bold” and will boost “the vision of a seamless capital region rail network from Baltimore to Richmond.”
The bill that went into effect last year urged the state to pursue a pilot program to have MARC trains sharing the tracks with the Virginia Railway Express to serve L’Enfant Plaza, Crystal City and Alexandria. The MTA in December said that service is not possible before the anticipated expansion of Long Bridge, which connects the District and Virginia, and is being expanded to double capacity for train traffic over 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 rail bridge, expected to be operating by 2030, is built.
The legislation comes as several other rail projects get underway in the state, including Amtrak’s $150 million revamp of Baltimore Penn Station, home to the MARC Penn Line, and a plan to replace the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel in the next decade at a cost of $4 billion, which would eliminate a major bottleneck for Amtrak, MARC trains and commercial rail traffic in the Northeast.