Hundreds of West Virginians travel from the Eastern Panhandle to Maryland or Washington D.C. every weekday for work. These commuters catch the Maryland-based MARC train, or Maryland Area Regional Commuter.
But during this year’s West Virginia Legislative session, lawmakers debated the future of the MARC train in the state.
Maryland threatened to discontinue MARC service to West Virginia unless certain provisions were met.
Commuting on the MARC Train
It’s almost 7 o’clock in the morning. The MARC train approaches Harpers Ferry; its last West Virginia stop before making several stops in Maryland. The final destination of the morning is Union Station in Washington, D.C.
The closer we get to D.C., the fuller the train gets. From Martinsburg to Union Station – it’s a two-hour commute.
The passengers from West Virginia say the MARC train is one of the main reasons they decided to live or stay in West Virginia -- like 27-year-old Matt Myers.
Myers is a Martinsburg native, and a graduate student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“When we were looking for places, we found one that was only a mile-in-a-half from the train station," he said, "so it’s been helpful having the MARC extend out that far. It definitely helped inform my choice to live there.”
The train is comfortable, well-lit, clean and air-conditioned. There are big windows and power outlets to charge a phone or a laptop. There’s a bathroom in the first car, and I’m told there’s one car labeled the “Quiet Car,” where you aren’t supposed to talk.
Some passengers read, some work or chat, and others sleep.
Another Martinsburg resident, 29-year-old Amber Darlington, actually moved from Maryland to Martinsburg for the lower cost of living and access to the MARC train for her job.
“My partner and I really couldn’t afford to live in Germantown for what we wanted," she said, "so we chose Martinsburg mainly because of the train, and we could actually afford to live there.”
Maryland Demands Funding from West Virginia
The MARC train serves 300 to 400 West Virginia residents just like Matt and Amber every weekday.
For more than 30 years, Maryland paid for the trains into West Virginia, while West Virginia paid for its three local stations -- Martinsburg, Duffields and Harpers Ferry.
But after 2010, Maryland requested funding from West Virginia if it wanted to keep the MARC train in the Eastern Panhandle.
In 2013, the Commuter Rail Access Fund was created by the West Virginia Legislature for this purpose…but each budget year, for one reason or another, funding was never added.
So, Maryland began imposing a fare increase on tickets purchased in West Virginia, and over time, fewer and fewer stops were scheduled in-state.
Jefferson County Delegate Riley Moore says in 2018, Maryland insisted that West Virginia lawmakers take action to fill the line item in the budget.
“MARC says, okay, look, you all have never paid us for this, and here’s the bill, and the bill originally starts off from Maryland at $3.8 million,” Moore said.
Maryland told West Virginia lawmakers if they didn’t receive that $3.8 million, MARC service in West Virginia would end as early as July of this year.
During the session, lawmakers didn’t find $3.8 million, but they did secure $1.5 million for MARC services...which Maryland accepted, for now.
“In the intervening year," Moore explained, "what we are going to do is bring all the stakeholders to the table, which would be the counties, the towns, the state, and the federal level to see where we can find funding from each source to have a permanent solution here for funding for the MARC train and also expand that service.”
Moore says he’s hopeful they can come to an agreement, and notes ticket prices will not increase on West Virginia riders this year.
Future of MARC in West Virginia
Meanwhile, commuters like Matt Myers and Amber Darlington are still concerned about losing the train.
What would they do without the service?
“[Make] the longer commute to Brunswick? But that [would be] about 45 minutes in the car, an hour-in-a-half on the train, and then 30 minutes on the bike," Myers said, "so I’m not sure. We [might consider] moving; kind of hard to even think about really.”
“I moved to West Virginia because of the train, because of the MARC train," Darlington explained, "and if they cut the service, I’d have to drive to work, which is 65 miles one way, both ways, five days a week, and that’s going to take such a toll on my car, and I hate driving.”
The Maryland Department of Transportation’s Public Affairs Director Erin Henson was not available for an interview but said in a statement to West Virginia Public Broadcasting on April 5, 2018, “a formal agreement has not yet been signed,” however, the Department is working with the West Virginia State Rail Authority to come up with a deal.
***Editor’s Note: The headline was tweaked on April 12, 2018 for clarification.