CHARLES TOWN – West Virginia’s lawmakers passed a $4.5 billion general fund budget on Saturday to set another year of state government spending starting July 1. And, as previously reported, the budget doesn’t include $3.5 million for the MARC train service in Jefferson and Berkeley counties.
During Senate floor remarks on Saturday before the state budget was adopted, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, acknowledged that he personally nixed the MARC funding.
With MARC commuter trains operating virtually empty during the coronavirus pandemic, Blair said giving the state of Maryland money to subsidize three station stops in Jefferson and Berkeley counties was not fiscally practical or responsible.
“I’m actually the guy who’s been the architect of getting the budget out in the 60-day session for the last three years,” Blair told his Senate colleagues during the final hours session.
Noting that he represents Berkeley County, where the MARC Brunswick Line stops start and ends in Martinsburg, Blair underscored how his personal hand in stopping MARC funding bucked typical political constituency pleas that lawmakers make.
“Isn’t that odd that the Senate president is saying take something out of the budget for his area,” he said, “when most of the time, you hear people barking, “I need this, I need that for my district. I got to have it. I got to have it.’”
Public officials from Berkeley County have emphasized the need to continue MARC service to Martinsburg to support the city’s and county’s economic development goals.
Blair said he recently obtained MARC ridership figures from West Virginia Transportation Secretary Byrd White that showed few commuters have been using the train service from the stations in Martinsburg, Duffields and Harpers Ferry during the pandemic.
Many commuters in Jefferson County drive to a station in Brunswick, Maryland, where fares are less expensive and more parking is available.
Spending $3.4 million annually for a service that few people use was not fiscally appropriate, the senator indicated.
Officials with the Maryland Transit Administration, the agency that operates the MARC, recently released ridership figures showing that 21 people a day on average used the service from West Virginia from last April through February.
In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, about 255 people rode the MARC daily from the three West Virginia stations.
Even then, some public officials in Jefferson County openly questioned the financial justification for spending $3.4 million—or about $13,300 annually per average passenger based on pre-pandemic ridership numbers—to continue operating the MARC in West Virginia.
Delegate John Doyle, a Democrat representing Jefferson County, has been outspoken in support of providing state or federal funding to continue MARC in West Virginia.
Doyle said stopping the MARC now would be shortsighted, especially since he expects the 27,000 highly paid employees coming to Amazon’s new headquarters in Crystal City, Virginia, will create greater housing demand throughout the Washington metro area that will only push more people to the Eastern Panhandle to live.
“That’s my most serious concern,” he said, “is the potential that we would be throwing away for about four, five or six years from now [the potential for population growth] if we don’t keep the trains running.”
Meanwhile, to draw more commuters onto the MARC, Doyle advocates eventually extending the train service to Berkeley Springs and Hancock, Maryland and West Virginia. “And Maryland should pay for at least part of that—because it would be serving part of Maryland,” he said.
Doyle contends that MARC might not be necessary for future growth in the Panhandle if a four- to six-lane highway were available to funnel commuter traffic into the Washington metro area. But such highway infrastructure isn’t coming to the Panhandle anytime soon, he said.
Doyle said he was certain that a $2 trillion “infrastructure” legislation proposed by President Biden would pay for various commuter rail services across the country, including the MARC. “Commuter rail around the country is not supported by fares only,” but primarily through state and federal funding, he said. “Particularly the Brunswick Line has a much higher than average percentage of its operations funded by fares from the riders.”
In 2018, Maryland threatened to cut back or terminate the MARC in Jefferson and Berkeley if West Virginia failed to provide at least $3.4 million annually to defray the service’s operational costs. Afterward, West Virginia transportation officials quietly arranged a five-year funding agreement with Maryland to continue three weekday round trips from Martinsburg to Union Station in Washington, D.C.
But then back in February, White informed county and municipal officials that West Virginia lawmakers had decided to no longer fund the MARC service after June 30. No mention was made of Blair’s influence.
Meanwhile, Maryland’s transportation officials have not indicated what this might hold for MARC’s future in West Virginia.
Brittany Marshall, an MTA spokesperson, has reported that any change in MARC service in West Virginia wouldn’t be made until an “equity analysis” of the service’s operations funding is completed. The agency would hold a public hearing and gather public comments before implementing any proposed service changes, she stated.