When Bloomberg reported in 2019 that Southern Maryland residents endure the most grueling commutes in the nation, the news raised few eyebrows in the tri-county region.
Workers in Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s are accustomed to waking in the wee hours to begin a long slog up Routes 301 and 5 to reach job sites in Prince George’s, Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia.
Transportation experts have spent decades looking at the feasibility of building a transit line to serve Southern Maryland, but projects in other parts of the state always loomed larger in the eyes of policymakers.
That changed this year when the General Assembly adopted legislation requiring the state to “promptly… undertake all steps necessary to complete the design, engineering, and [environmental] process and secure a record of decision for the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit Project.”
More momentum came soon after, when the state’s congressional delegation — led by Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D) and Ben Cardin (D) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D) — secured a $5 million federal earmark to match funds the state had committed.
Now, suddenly, local leaders are talking about a Southern Maryland transit project as a when, not just an if.
“Prior to seeing actual designated funding, it was really just a hope and a prayer,” said Reuben Collins II (D), head of the Board of Charles County Commissioners. “This is clearly an advancement from where we have been before… We understand that this is significant.”
Charles County leaders are scheduled to meet with the Maryland Department of Transportation on Wednesday, as part of the agency’s annual fall meetings with each locality. Collins and his colleagues will urge MDOT to keep its foot on the gas where the project is concerned.
“We’ve got to continue to build momentum, and continue to push,” said Collins. “Having a new administration come in, I think that’s potentially encouraging.”
State Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) said “transit means everything for Southern Maryland commuters.”
“Seventy-seven percent of our working adults travel towards Washington, D.C. on a regular basis to go to work,” he added. “We have the worst commute in the nation. What Southern Maryland rapid transit will do is take a lot of cars off the road.”
A 2017 analysis concluded that an 18.7 mile bus rapid transit system along the US 301/MD 5 corridor, from White Plains in Charles County to the Branch Avenue Metrorail Station in Prince George’s County, would be more cost-effective than light rail. The report failed to spur further action.
The study noted that Prince George’s and Charles “are pursuing the creation of mixed-use centers with densities sufficient to support [transit-oriented development, or TOD], which are essential to creating a sustainable regional rapid transit system” in the project corridor.
“TOD will provide higher land use density/intensity, help increase transit ridership to maximize transit investment, encourage economic growth and job creation, reduce the jobs-to-housing imbalance along the MD 5/US 301 corridor, and promote alternative transportation modes (e.g., walking, biking, transit) to reduce or eliminate the need to commute via automobile,” the report added.
Although most bus-rapid transit systems operate in their own lanes, to keep them from getting bogged down in traffic, advocates are insistent that the region deserves a light rail line, saying it would draw more riders and lead to more job creation. The next phase of study will determine which mode — rail or bus — would work best, what alignment to use, and what the environmental and structural impacts would be.
Planners estimate that between 24,000 and 28,000 commuters would ditch their cars and take the train if they could. Gary Hodge, a former head of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland and a longtime transit advocate, said the region has the appetite to support a light rail line.
“We’re in one of the fastest growing parts of the state,” he said. “I went out and I visited Charlotte and Phoenix and Norfolk. And all three of these light rail projects started with lower ridership than we have.”
Hodge said the Southern Maryland transit project has “probably the cleanest alignment of any light rail project in the country,” because planners could theoretically use the Routes 5 and 301 right of way for much of the line and area adjacent to the existing CSX track bed for the rest. “So we have very few major obstacles to deal with.” he said.
Collins said the business community has responded to the likelihood that transit may finally be coming to Southern Maryland. The Waldorf Urban Redevelopment Corridor, an area targeted for growth, has seen “an uptick in interest from developers looking at that area,” he said.
“That is a good sign,” he added. “We weren’t seeing that kind of interest on that scale.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct the date of Charles County’s meeting with MDOT officials. It is Wednesday.