Municipal and county leaders from Jefferson and Berkeley Counties are scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon with eastern panhandle legislators to brainstorm about ways to save the commuter rail service between those two counties and Washington, D.C.
House of Delegates member Jason Barrett (D-Berkeley) told me on Talkline Tuesday that the local governments will be asked to make a financial contribution to keep trains running.
Currently, the Maryland Area Regional Commuter train service, known as MARC, operates six trains a day—three from Jefferson and Berkeley Counties to D.C. in the morning and three return trips in the afternoon.
Ticket prices and ridership do not cover the full cost of service, so Maryland wants West Virginia to pay $3.4 million to subsidize the service. The West Virginia legislature has allocated only $1.1 million.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair (R-Berkeley), who is a fiscal hawk, is trying to hold the line on state spending. However, Blair might be convinced to soften his position if the localities kick in a portion of the cost.
So, who is going to make up the difference?
First, the riders themselves should bear more of the cost of the service, and that means higher ticket prices. However, if ticket prices go up too high then fewer people will use the trains, meaning the subsidy would have to be even higher to keep service.
Second, get with Maryland to see if it is willing to accept a lower subsidy, or at least find out why Maryland has put the figure at $3.4 million.
Third, many local officials argue passionately for the train service, saying the benefit to the region goes beyond the individual riders. So, Jefferson and Berkeley Counties, Martinsburg, Charles Town, Ranson, Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown and other local governments in the region must chip in.
Fourth, if Maryland and West Virginia can agree on a price, and if West Virginia can come up with the money, lock in the deal for a few years so that this is not an annual problem.
Fifth, the state can increase its subsidy if, and only if, the first four conditions are met.
Frankly, the easier solution would be to provide no subsidy at all, drop the train service, and let the 250 to 300 people who ride the train each workday to and from Washington drive to work like everyone else.
However, once the train service disappears it will probably never come back. Meanwhile, Jefferson and Berkeley Counties increasingly serve as bedroom communities for the greater D.C. area. If this service is as important as the local leaders and passengers say it is, then the solution begins with the riders themselves and the communities served by the trains having more skin in the game.