Opinion: Is Maryland Ready for Its National Passenger Rail Moment?

Passenger Rail
Pexels.com photo by Albin Berlin.

By Sean Winkler

The writer is a transportation advocate and Silver Spring resident. He can be reached at [email protected].

Amtrak Joe — President Joe Biden — is set to deliver on a new national moment for passenger rail. Despite some recent fits and starts, the Congress is close passing a transformational $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.

The bill represents a historic investment in passenger rail, providing increased federal operating support for commuter railroads, new grant programs to address aging infrastructure and new support for green railroad technologies. Yet despite maintaining a top-10 commuter rail ridership system in the U.S., Maryland may not be in position to fully take advantage of these new federal passenger rail investments.

Recently, Maryland’s peer states and commuter rail agencies have doubled down on their commitments to growing their systems and relieving metropolitan congestion.

Earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a $3.7 billion rail bill that will revolutionize Virginia’s intercity, commuter and freight rail systems and help to relieve congestion around Washington, D.C. Virginia’s commitment to growing its passenger rail service is even more impressive considering that the Virginia Railway Express carried about half as many passengers as the Maryland Area Regional Commuter service did, pre-pandemic.

In 2019, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a $45 billion capital bill, providing crucial state funding to the Chicago Transit Authority and Metra, northeastern Illinois’ commuter rail agency, to upgrade their rail cars, enhance station amenities and ADA-compliance, and plan for the future. Similar stories appear as you continue west of the Mississippi, as Colorado, California and Washington have all recently announced investments into or expansion of their passenger rail networks.

What do these states and Maryland’s commuter rail peers have that we do not? An independent, regional commuter or passenger rail authority.

In fact, the MARC service is the only commuter rail service ranking in the top 10 in national ridership to be housed inside a state Department of Transportation and not overseen by an independent regional transit agency or joint powers authority. The lack of an independent commuter rail agency harms the state’s rail capital planning and federal funding applications, advocacy, and constituent and rider outreach efforts.

It is difficult for passenger rail projects and issues to gain traction within a state DOT. The vast majority of federal and state funding, derived from motor fuel taxes, goes to road and bridge projects.

Additionally, since state DOT leadership is derived from the gubernatorial administration in power, planning and mode preference decisions can become temporary as they are susceptible to political preferences.

This phenomenon also impacts advocacy and federal funding efforts, as state leadership is often more interested in advancing policy initiatives and grant funding applications for projects with dedicated sources of funding, like roads, and that may pay more immediate political benefits and don’t require raising additional local capital funds.

An independent, regional commuter rail agency in Maryland would elevate passenger rail issues, remove political influence from Annapolis and empower local governments. For a state with arguably the strongest county system of government in the nation, it is surprising Maryland’s county executives have left commuter rail planning and funding decisions to the governor and their respective Annapolis delegations. A regional commuter rail agency would empower MARC service-counties to more strongly oversee the services in their areas, advance local funding priorities, like ADA-station compliance or innovative and equitable transit fare reduction plans, and provide the average Maryland commuter a greater voice in the state’s passenger rail future.

Recently, forward-looking members of the Maryland General Assembly have looked to elevate commuter rail issues in response to our peer states.

Efforts like House Bill 1236, the MARC Train Expansion of Service Act of 2020, are an important step in expanding MARC service and building local political coalitions around the state interested in expanding passenger rail.

However, if state leaders are serious about expanding commuter rail service and preparing our state for the federal infrastructure bill, we must look to create an independent, regional commuter rail authority to elevate Maryland’s passenger rail future.