Last week, after much debate, state leaders and representatives from the Eastern Panhandle announced a deal to keep the Maryland MARC commuter train service operating at current levels for at least another year.
The estimated 250 to 300 passengers a day use the train to commute between Jefferson and Berkeley Counties and Washington, D.C. MARC runs six trains a day Monday through Friday—three into the city in the morning and three return trips in the afternoon.
The ticket prices do not support the full cost of operations, so Maryland requires a $3.4 million subsidy. The funding package has the Legislature allocating $1.2 million, Governor Justice adding $1.1 million from his contingency fund, state Auditor J.B. McCuskey chipping in $750,000 from his office and local county and municipal governments contributing $300,000.
The agreement is a true bi-partisan solution involving Republicans and Democrats, local and state leaders. It would have been impossible to craft such a deal without consensus among all parties. Props to Justice, McCuskey and the local policymakers who worked for weeks to come up with a funding mechanism.
“I am grateful beyond belief to all who had a hand in pooling together the funding that we needed to keep this vital connection between our state and Washington D.C.,” Justice said in a prepared statement. “Hundreds of West Virginians and several businesses use this important service every day and I’m fully committed to keep it running in our state for many years to come.”
Auditor McCuskey has been working on a plan to help the local governments come up with their share. “Our mission from this point on is to build up the train service, inviting our young people to come back home, and helping build the economy of our beautiful Eastern Panhandle.”
This is a one-year fix. It’s unclear whether future public policymakers will be as willing to pony up. Even this temporary fix will be criticized by those—both from the panhandle and statewide—who do not believe taxpayers should be subsidizing the cost of getting a limited number of people to and from work.
They say the passengers should absorb the full cost. However, if they did the ticket prices would be so high that ridership would drop dramatically, and the service would die on the vine. They argue that would simply be market efficiencies at work.
The counter argument is the train service is an important economic driver for the fast-growing Eastern Panhandle. The supporters add that all mass transit is subsidized, so why shouldn’t West Virginia’s limited commuter train service be included.
This is not a new debate. Public policymakers are constantly making decisions about what to fund, balancing available revenue with the needs and desires of their constituencies. The MARC train is deemed worthy of funding… for now.
Without a long-term solution, the service will be subject to an annual battle to cobble together funding, and there’s no guarantee that inter-government and bi-partisan cooperation that led to this year’s deal will be there in future years.