Putting traffic on track

April 25, 2007

The impact of the thousands of new jobs coming to the region thanks to the U.S. military's base realignment and closure plans on the state's increasingly congested roads could prove daunting. But there is an alternative to gridlock that doesn't involve paving the landscape. With the bulk of the growth centered on Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland has a unique opportunity to beef up its MARC commuter rail service that could redefine local transit options.

Imagine a defense contractor reassigned to Fort Meade boarding a train in Northern Virginia that takes him all the way to Odenton, where he can hop a shuttle to his office. Or perhaps a city resident getting dropped off at Penn Station to catch the MARC train to Aberdeen and an APG-operated bus directly to the base. Both would avoid the rush-hour backups on Interstate 95. It would be a faster, cheaper, more energy-efficient and greener commute.

And here's the really remarkable thing - much of the necessary infrastructure is in place. MARC's Penn line connects to both, and as part of Amtrak's Northeast corridor, it boasts some of the best (that is, highest-speed) track in the nation. From a planner's point of view, MARC's untapped potential is tantalizing - and extraordinarily frustrating.

Frustrating because the obstacles to a MARC expansion are numerous and complex. First, they'd require the cooperation of Amtrak, which operates trains on the Penn line. Amtrak understandably gives priority to its own service and may object to an expanded MARC schedule. Freight carrier CSX, which operates the Camden and Brunswick lines, would also be a reluctant partner in any enterprise that might adversely impact its freight operations.

Today, MARC traffic is primarily Washington-bound. Providing simultaneous service in the opposite direction would require not only expanding MARC's 117-car fleet but also adding storage and maintenance facilities outside Baltimore or the district. Service into Virginia is particularly challenging; the most recent estimates are that it might cost $60 million to make the MARC system compatible with the Virginia Railway Express.

That's just the beginning. Officials in Harford County are pushing for a new Aberdeen station to connect commuters to local bus service. The price tag? At least $40 million. And that's just one station. Other infrastructure proposals run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

MARC must play a role in accommodating Maryland's BRAC-related growth, but exactly how requires a balanced and realistic approach. It may take many years before the most ambitious plans can be realized, but the Maryland Transit Administration can't continue its customary approach of making only incremental investments in MARC that reflect no vision for the future.

Building on the system's strengths will certainly require buying more bilevel cars, running more and longer trains (many are overcrowded at peak hours), improving the connections to local bus service, adding parking in high-density neighborhoods and encouraging transit-oriented development around key stations. MARC can't be the whole solution to BRAC's impact on traffic, but it should be a significant part of one.

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