When Jim McCarthy was preparing to move his family to this area from New Jersey five years ago, he had no doubt that he would live in Anne Arundel County.
McCarthy had two criteria that only Anne Arundel could meet. He wanted to be between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore and he wanted to live near the Chesapeake Bay.
The 40-year-old married father of three settled in Severna Park, despite the fact that doing so has meant years of hour-long commutes to his job as a Coast Guard commander in Washington.
For a long time, McCarthy rode the MARC train system to work, joining the legion of Baltimore area residents who are riding the rails to jobs in the Washington area. McCarthy says he would still be riding the train if car-pooling did not make it easier for him to be home in time for his children's soccer practice.
"I love the train," he says. "I'd go back in a heartbeat."
McCarthy apparently is not alone in his affection for what was once referred to as the Maryland Rail Commuter, but today is simply called MARC.
Since 1989, the number of daily riders on the MARC system has nearly doubled, going from about 8,700 riders a day to more than 14,900, according to State Railroad Administration figures.
On the system's most popular line, from Baltimore's Penn Station to Washington's Union Station, fiscal 1990 saw the number of people boarding the train increase by 540,000 over the previous year. The 46 percent increase on the Penn line, coupled with increases on the rail systems' Camden and Brunswick lines, saw ridership top out at approximately 3.5 million people for the year, as opposed to 2.7 million in 1989.
The increase was buoyed in part by MARC's decision in 1989 to add 12 trains to the 14 already running.
"The more service we add, the more popular it becomes," MARC spokesman Robert Shreeve says.
More than anything, however, MARC's success has been in its ability to tap into an increasingly popular commuting pattern.
Currently, about 100,000 commuters travel daily between Baltimore and Washington, according to a study by the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments, which predicts that the number will increase to 180,000 by the year 2010.
So far, the trend has been fueled by the residential housing boom of the late 1980s, which saw growth in Washington area suburbs spill over into corridor counties such as Anne Arundel and Howard. As people moved north for relatively less expensive housing, many continued to work in Washington, demanding more in roads and transit services.
MARC responded not only by increasing the number of trains, but also by adding new stations along the corridor such as those in Bowie, Seabrook and Savage.
The service is expected to extend north of Baltimore with the opening of a Perryville line May 1, with stops in Aberdeen, Edgewood and Middle River.
Like other MARC services, the Perryville line is expected to primarily serve commuters headed for Washington, Shreeve said. MARC is projecting that between 250 and 400 people will use the Perryville line initially, with up to 1,000 passengers coming aboard within a year.
While MARC expects most of those passengers to be traveling into the Washington area, the exact number is not certain, Shreeve said.
Underscoring Washington's magnetism, Shreeve said that a sample of rush-hour MARC commuters last year showed that about 73 percent were headed for jobs in the District.
And regardless of the mode of transportation, the trend was the same, according to the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments study: Three out of four commuters traveling between Baltimore and Washington worked in the Washington area.
That statistic has made officials at the council of governments openly wonder what impact the lopsided ratio will have on the Baltimore area.
In a recent report, "A Strategic Assessment of the Baltimore Region for Improving the Quality of Life," officials zeroed in on the "growing competition as well as opportunity from the increasingly powerful Washington area economy.
"The Washington region could drive up Baltimore housing prices and attract more of the region's increasingly tight supply of scarce labor," the report concludes.