CHARLESTON – Sen. Herb Snyder says a bill that would reduce the costs to Maryland taxpayers for providing MARC commuter train services into Jefferson and Berkeley Counties has a good shot at being passed by the House of Delegates.
The bill – Senate Bill 103 or the Commuter Rail Access Act – is currently in the House Finance Committee, likely the biggest mountain it will have to climb on its way to the governor’s desk.
Snyder, who says he has introduced bills similar to SB 103 for several years, said this is the closest the bill has ever come to becoming a law.
“That bill has come a long way,” he said. “To get it out of Senate Finance was a pure miracle. It took a lot of work because it has a price tag.”
The measure would provide subsidies to CSX, the owner of the rails MARC uses for its Brunswick Line, in exchange for an agreement not to charge rail usage fees.
Snyder, along with Delegate Stephen Skinner, said the House Finance Committee is sending positive signals that give them hope the bill might come up on the agenda this week before the close of the session.
Snyder said it is increasingly urgent that West Virginia get some skin in the game if it wishes to keep the rail line active.
“They are looking to up the gas tax in Maryland,” he said. “So, what does that have to do with us? Well, the gas tax in Maryland is what pays all of their mass transit. Mass transit funding is a huge part of what they just did, and they are always looking at West Virginia, saying, ‘Well, we’re still losing a million or two a year running that train into West Virginia.’”
At a meeting of Eastern Panhandle Legislators on Monday, the bill was a central topic of discussion.
Vince Hodge, member of the MARC Riders Advisory Council, came to Charleston to lobby local lawmakers to support the bill.
“It’s been very tough on the West Virginia side,” he said. “Their attitude has been, ‘Well, we’ll do what we need to do because West Virginia is getting a service from the taxpayers of Maryland.’”
Hodge, who said he commutes two hours each day to Washington for work, says he never would have moved to the area if he didn’t have to assurance that he would have train service into the city.
Skinner said he had been in communication with House Finance leadership, and his conversations made him hopeful for the bill’s passage.
“Based on our interaction, I’m very optimistic that it will get placed on the agenda. However, that’s not a guarantee,” Skinner said. “I hope the entire Eastern Panhandle Caucus can come together and vote for this.”
The bill did encounter some skepticism from conservative caucus members, however.
Daryl Cowles, the only member of the caucus who sits on the House Finance Committee, told Hodge, he had some concerns about the bill.
“I’m very close,” said Cowles. “I want to represent the Eastern Panhandle’s interests, and I know this is incredibly important for Berkeley and Jefferson.”
Cowles worried that funding the MARC line would take money from other necessary programs.
“It’s always a tradeoff,” Cowles said. “If I agree to spend $700,000 over here, then it means I can’t spend it over there.”
“I know that we are also cutting the rural health clinic in Paw Paw,” he remarked, adding that there was already very little access to health care in that area.
Delegate Mike Folk said it was unfair to subsidize train riders, given that thousands of people drive to work in Washington and surrounding areas.
“Why should we give a subsidy to a relatively small segment who are riding the trains relative to the high number of people who drive?” Folk asked. “I drive nearly to New York City every week, so you’re not going to get any sympathy from me. And nobody subsidizes my drive, and I did it for six or eight years.”
Hodge pointed out that public roads receive major funding by both state and federal governments.