CHARLES TOWN – State Sen. Herb Snyder hopes Maryland transportation officials will abandon their plan for big schedule changes for those who commute by train to D.C. and its suburbs, but he’s also focusing on the long haul.
“We can’t have this threat to disrupt service every few years,” explained Snyder, a Democrat who represents the 16th Senatorial District. “It’s clear we need a longer-term fix.”
With Maryland Transit Administration officials still talking about introducing a host of schedule changes as early as this month, Snyder’s immediate task is to find a solution that works for Panhandle residents, many of whom packed a recent town hall in Charles Town to say MARC’s proposal would mean enormous inconveniences in their home, work and community life routines.
But even if MARC abandons its proposed changes – which also were met with myriad complaints at public hearings late last month in Frederick and Montgomery counties in Maryland – an overarching problem remains, Snyder points out.
“The big problem is the schedule is completely in the hands of Maryland,” he said. “As a West Virginia lawmaker, I’m doing everything I can, but in the end the process isn’t one where West Virginia has a formal say.”
Snyder has written to Paul Mattox, who heads the West Virginia Division of Highways, and has spoken with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, asking the men to find ways for West Virginia to become a partner in MARC’s operations.
One idea he’s pushing: for West Virginia to provide about $700,000 in tax credits to CSX if the railroad owner waives the access fees now being paid by MARC for use of its track.
“That saves Maryland $700,000 and it’s a way to ensure the service to West Virginia continues for years to come,” Snyder said. “It’s the right thing for West Virginia to do. Commuter rail service benefits the Panhandle, and this kind of rail access fee will ensure the economic future of this part of the state can continue on.”
More than 7,000 people take the Brunswick Line into Union Station in D.C. each weekday. The line includes just three stops outside Maryland: Two in Jefferson County (in Duffields and Harpers Ferry) and one in Berkeley County (at the Caperton Train Station in Martinsburg).
Four years ago, when MARC last proposed eliminating the final evening train to West Virginia, Snyder and other Panhandle lawmakers worked to craft a compromise: MARC would continue service to West Virginia, but passengers traveling from any of the three stations here would pay $2 more per trip.
Right now, West Virginia doesn’t include funding for MARC in its budget, but the surcharge does provide Maryland with about $200,000 annually.
But despite the additional revenue, MARC-riding West Virginians late last year learned that again the final evening train to West Virginia was in danger of elimination.
After hearing enormous criticism of that and other proposed changes during a Jan. 7 public hearing, MARC officials backtracked, and then this spring re-floated the idea with a twist: no more third evening train to West Virginia, but MARC riders could take a designated commuter bus from Brunswick, Md., the Brunswick Line’s final Maryland stop, onto the Panhandle.
The bus option would allow West Virginians to work late in D.C. but still catch a ride home, MARC officials said in defending the proposal. “We heard your feedback in January,” John Hovatter, director of MARC Train & Commuter Bus, said during MARC’s public hearing at the Charles Town Library on May 19. “We’ve created this new plan that reflects the responses we’ve gotten from riders.”
But nearly all the West Virginians who spoke out at that public hearing voiced a dislike for the train-to-bus idea, saying it would give commuters further incentive to avoid the West Virginia surcharge and begin their train commute at Brunswick – a step that would add to the crowded conditions at that station’s parking lot and the highway between Brunswick and Jefferson County.
Many said the bus plan would prompt a number of commuters to abandon the train altogether. Several called the revamped schedule proposal even less desirable than the initial changes MARC had proposed.
They also bashed MARC’s proposal to offer an early train to the Panhandle, departing from Washington at 4:15 p.m. each weekday and ending at 6:26 p.m. in Martinsburg as thoroughly useless. “No one will be able to use that,” one commuter said during the public hearing. “You can’t take the train in, work an eight-hour day and then leave at 4:15.”
A public hearing was held in Rockville on May 22 and then another the next evening in Frederick. At both, Maryland commuters expressed their distaste for the changes. “Commuters decry proposed MARC changes,” read the headline in the Frederick News-Post on May 23.
“These changes are as unpopular in Maryland as they are with West Virginians,” said Snyder, who didn’t attend the public hearings there, but had representatives report back to him. “Some of the Maryland commuters were under the impression that these changes were what West Virginians wanted.”
Snyder says it’s his hope that MARC officials back off the changes for now and then for a partnership between the two states to be established. “We need a firmer foundation to stand on,” he said. “MARC is part of the fabric of the Panhandle and we want to see it continue for decades to come. We want to have a secure future and for West Virginia to be a part of what happens with service here.”