Expansion of MARC sidetracked Original budget cut by five-sixths

November 07, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Plans to upgrade and expand Maryland's commuter rail system have been derailed, at least temporarily, by the federal government.

State officials had hoped to purchase new locomotives and cars to augment and replace much of the antiquated equipment that has contributed to long delays and overcrowding along the Maryland Rail Commuter system. Known as MARC, the system provides an average 19,500 rides each day.

The federal government last year authorized $60 million for that purpose. However, under an appropriation approved by the Congress and President Bush for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, Maryland will receive only $10 million for MARC improvements, or one-sixth of the original commitment.

The MTA is among transit agencies across the country that failed to get what they expected. The $151 billion, six-year federal highway and transit construction plan approved one year ago authorized $5.4 billion in spending in fiscal 1993. But congressional cost-cutting whittled the actual appropriation to $3.8 billion.

The loss of $50 million has left the state Mass Transit Administration scrambling to find ways to get its MARC expansion plans back on track.

"We haven't made any decisions on what we're going to do," said Ronald J. Hartman, the MTA's administrator. "It's very bad. You expect to get less from the federal government these days, but the MARC appropriation was the worst."

The failure to get the money will likely mean a one-year delay in planning for a proposed extension to Frederick along the Brunswick line, which connects Washington to points west, including Brunswick and Martinsburg, W.Va. Construction was scheduled to begin in 1994, Mr. Hartman said.

The loss will also deter efforts to expand parking at the MARC station near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The state had hoped to spend $2.7 million to build a garage at BWI, where customer parking is at a premium.

MTA officials said they will instead look into the possibility of attracting a private firm to finance new parking at BWI and at the Germantown station in Montgomery County.

But the biggest setback will be felt by rail commuters who are frustrated by delays and sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder crowds aboard rush-hour trains. Officials had hoped to use the largest chunk of the $50 million to acquire locomotives and coaches in order to upgrade service.

Railroad equipment costs are high: $2.5 million to $4.5 million for a new locomotive; $1 million to $1.3 million for a new coach.

The state spent $11.3 million earlier this year to acquire used equipment -- three locomotives and 10 cars. Two of the locomotives have been delivered, a third is to arrive Monday, and the first five cars are to arrive later this month.

Mr. Hartman said the agency's best hope may be to see if it can leverage its fiscal 1993 federal funds. Much like a customer using a department store layaway plan, the MTA might be able to put some money down with a manufacturer now to buy cars and engines next year.

"Normally, you need the money in hand for a big purchase," Mr. Hartman said. "What we don't want to do is buy two or three cars at a time. You could do it, but you'd get a ridiculous price."

Aggravating the situation somewhat is the fact that the MTA can't even use all of the $10 million for cars and locomotives. At the urging of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th, Congress earmarked $3 million of Maryland's transit appropriation for the study of a possible MARC extension into Southern Maryland.

Meanwhile, MARC's on-time performance has been improving in recent months. An estimated 91 percent of MARC trains ran on schedule in October, up from 85 percent in September and 84.5 percent in August.

That is still below the agency's goal of a 95 percent on-time record, but considerably above the 74 percent rate posted in July.

The MARC system consists of three lines. In addition to the Brunswick Line, MARC trains operate on the Penn Line between Perryville in Cecil County, through downtown Baltimore and on to Washington, and on the Camden Line between Camden Station in downtown Baltimore and Washington.

The state owns the equipment but two railroads, Amtrak and CSX Transportation Inc., are responsible for running the trains.

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