West Virginia officials scrambling to cobble together the funds needed to keep MARC train service running to the state’s Eastern Panhandle have been granted some extra time by the state of Maryland.
But Hogan administration officials are signaling their patience won’t last forever.
“I was talking to the West Virginia DOT today to find out where they are,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn told state lawmakers in Montgomery County on Monday. “They’ve asked for another week to resolve this in a conversation with their governor.”
For several decades MDOT has run MARC trains to Martinsburg, Duffields and Harpers Ferry in West Virginia without compensation. But two years ago the Hogan administration began pressing the Mountaineer State to pony up the $3.5 million it says Maryland taxpayers spend to provide that service.
The demand has set off a scramble for the West Virginia legislature, Gov. Jim Justice (R) and the communities served by the Maryland commuter line to piece together that money.
According to West Virginia state Del. John Doyle (D), a top Justice aide recently agreed that — if the communities served by MARC could come up with $300,000 between them — the state would provide the rest.
“We sat down and we parceled it out by population,” Doyle said. “Berkeley County has come up with their allotted $170,000. The city of Martinsburg has come up with its allowed $25,000. Charles Town has come up with its allotted $8,800. Ranson, it’s allotted $7,700. Bolivar its allotted $1,500. And Harper’s Ferry, which was allotted $410, has come up with $2,500.”
Only Jefferson County has yet to sign-off on its portion of the tab, the lawmaker said. At a meeting last week, members of the County Commission voted to come up with $40,000 to keep MARC trains running, less than half of the $82,500 it was due to pay under the formula.
“I do think we’re almost there,” Doyle added.
MARC service is considered vital to connecting the residents of Eastern West Virginia with job opportunities in more prosperous Montgomery County and the District of Columbia without having to drive.
In addition, municipal leaders in Western Maryland have expressed the concern that West Virginians who can’t take the train will clog I-270 and take up scarce parking spaces at MARC stations in their communities if they’re forced to drive.
“We don’t want those people coming onto our roads if we can avoid it,” Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) said on Monday.
Currently MARC runs six trains a day to or from West Virginia — three morning trains toward Montgomery County and Washington, D.C., and three homebound trains in the evening.
They carry approximately 250 passengers a day.
Doyle said the current scramble — in which localities would pick up 10 percent of Maryland’s reimbursement and the state of West Virginia the rest — is a one-year fix. That would set the table for discussions around a longer-term solution next year.
“The fear [here is] that if the service goes away, property values will drop,” Doyle said. “That’s what I don’t understand about the Jefferson County Commission. I believe that if service is reduced to one train a day [in each direction], property values in our county will drop at least 5 percent, which will cost the [commission] a heck of a lot more than $82,000 out of its budget.”
Maryland officials originally said they would end or scale back train service to Martinsburg, Duffields and Harpers Ferry at the end of November, but they agreed to hold off with negotiations underway in West Virginia. They have promised to provide 30 days notice before making any changes.
“West Virginia reached out to me and said ‘we’re trying to cobble this together,’” Rahn told Maryland Matters. “They said, ‘We need a little more time.’ So we’re giving them a little more time.”