Revenge of the iron horse

June 16, 2005

LIKE A CLASSIC cowboy movie, the latest turf war to hit Maryland's western frontier has a 19th-century feel, but without the mustache-twirling villains. Granted, any conflict that pits the steam engine against the bicycle is venturing, dare we say, a little off the macadamized path. The rail vs. trail debate is Cumberland's answer to John Henry. Except, of course, it's the local economy that stands to lose.

First, a bit of explanation. Trouble has been brewing for a couple of years now as state support for the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad has diminished while taxpayer subsidies for the new Allegheny Highlands Trail have grown. This has angered many local supporters of the railroad. And on at least one occasion, a conductor was heard telling tourists on a Cumberland-to-Frostburg excursion to boycott the new hiking and biking trail that will eventually link Pittsburgh with Washington, D.C.

Trail supporters hate this kind of talk, and rightly so. The trail is expected to attract 200,000 visitors a year to Cumberland, six times as many as the railroad. But it's not an inexpensive venture. Maryland's Department of Transportation has committed nearly $6 million to build the trail's first 11 miles, and it's still another 11 miles to Cumberland. Complicating matters is the fact that the trail runs alongside the railroad. The route they follow is the only reasonable way to navigate the steep mountains between Frostburg and Cumberland.

In addition to the practical challenges (the two must share a 963-foot-long tunnel at one point), there's political intrigue as well. The railroad is closely associated with former state House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat who lost re-election in 2002. Thanks largely to Mr. Taylor's influence, the state invested millions in the railroad and other tourism ventures. Local Republicans appear less than interested in glorifying that legacy.

Besides, Ehrlich administration officials say, they're just living up to a long-standing agreement with Allegany County, and the cities of Cumberland and Frostburg, that places the railroad under local control (and zeroes out state funding next year).

That may be true, but the railroad is clearly ailing. State support has shrunk to $112,500 this year (half the previous year's level). Even administration officials see value in keeping the railroad alive, and they've recently brokered a peace deal. The trail's governing board issued a statement of "strong and unconditional support" for the railroad. The railroad's president wants a new train to shuttle bikers to Frostburg so they can enjoy the downhill run to Cumberland.

That makes sense. The two attractions could fit together like spurs and boots. But it may also take a few tax dollars to make it happen. Allegany County has the region's highest unemployment rate. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should take note: Creating jobs is the equivalent of saving the damsel in distress. There's still time to slip on the white hat and ride to the rescue.

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