There is constant debate in a free society over the legitimate functions of government, especially as it relates to the spending of taxpayer dollars. What services do people need and want from their government and how much should be spent on those services?

The current topic of that debate is taking place in the state’s Eastern Panhandle.

The Maryland Area Regional Commuter train service, know as MARC, operates six trains a day (three inbound to the Washington, D.C. area and three return trains) servicing three stops in Jefferson and Berkeley Counties.  The trains provide important transportation for people who live in West Virginia, but commute to the Washington area to work.

The Maryland Transit Authority has requested West Virginia pay $3.4 million annually to subsidize the service. The West Virginia Legislature has authorized $1.1 million.  Maryland says without the additional money, it will reduce the service from six trains a day to two—one inbound and one return.

Saturday, an overflow crowd of residents and officials from the Eastern Panhandle crammed into a meeting in Charles Town to vent about the proposed reduction and encourage the state to come up with more money to keep the current service.

Supporters argue, among other things, that the Eastern Panhandle is the top growth area in West Virginia which provides increasing revenue to the state and the region, and it should get something in return from Charleston.

They also argue that the commuter service has benefits beyond the use for individual passengers.  Shane Farthing, economic and community development director for the City of Martinsburg, said on Talkline last week that regular train service to the city is essential for continuing to attract people who work in the city, but want the benefits of living in a more rural area.

Opponents to providing additional money contend that taxpayers in the other 53 counties should not have to pay for a service that benefits only Jefferson and Berkeley Counties, especially when the state has so many other needs.  Republican Senator Craig Blair, who represents Berkeley County, said on Talkline Friday that the state could buy all the 200 to 250 daily riders a new luxury car every four years for what the subsidy would cost.

Perhaps instead of either/or there should be a reasonable compromise, because both sides have legitimate arguments.  The train service’s benefits to the region, and ultimately the state, do extend beyond the welfare of the daily passengers.  However, in a state with more needs than money, Charleston must careful about subsidies.

Jefferson County Democratic Delegate John Doyle is an ardent train service supporter, and he’s trying to find a workable arrangement.   Municipal and county governments could join the state in helping to offset the cost. Meanwhile, he suggests Maryland might be willing to accept less money or only eliminate one round-trip route instead of two.

It is also reasonable to consider increasing fares, but that’s tricky.  If the cost is too high, then commuters will either stop using the train, thus increasing highway traffic, or drive to the Brunswick, Maryland train stop just across the Potomac River.  That too is a problem because the Brunswick station parking lot is already overflowing.

Turnout at the public meeting Saturday demonstrated the strong local support for the train service, but to what level should taxpayers who do not use the trains be willing to accommodate those needs?

This is once again the classic debate over the role of government, and one to which there are no easy answers, but there is an opportunity for a reasonable compromise.

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