CHARLES TOWN – A proposed Nov. 4 cutback of the MARC train service in the Eastern Panhandle has been postponed at least until December. However, officials appear no closer to finding a long-term funding fix for the commuter rail line in West Virginia.
Gov. Jim Justice has indicated that West Virginia would deliver an extra $2.3 million to keep the trains fully running in the Eastern Panhandle at least for the next seven months.
At an Oct. 22 appearance in Shepherdstown, Justice said the state would provide Maryland the funding even if county governments and municipalities came up short in pitching in the $300,000 that he requested to preserve the full commuter service.
However, Jefferson County commissioners said last week that they later heard from Justice’s staff that the governor misspoke. They said they were told the governor’s administration still wants the $300,000 in local funding.
Providing the stopgap funding would give officials another shot early next year at negotiating long-term funding from the Legislature. Local funding for the rail service is considered a show of local commitment, some area state lawmakers say.
Nevertheless, most of the Jefferson and Berkeley governments are reluctantly pledging one-time contributions to keep MARC running at least temporarily, to provide the hope to maintain the service beyond June.
Local governments were asked to contribute based on their estimated census populations. Charles Town and Ranson approved their shares of $8,839 and $7,553, respectively earlier this month. Harpers Ferry has budgeted $2,700 for the service. Last Thursday the Jefferson County Commission voted 3-2 to contribute $40,000 of its suggested $82,810 share.
Annette Gavin Bates, executive director of the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau, reported this week that the bureau has approved a $5,000 contribution toward sustaining the MARC service.
Earlier this month the Berkeley County Council, the Berkeley County Development Authority and the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Visitors Bureau agreed to collectively contribute $170,723 toward MARC.
Commission President Patsy Noland joined commissioners Ralph Lorenzetti and Jane Tabb in providing the money — conditioned as a one-time commitment. Commissioners Josh Compton and Caleb Wayne Hudson voted against the funding.
Noland said she wanted to see MARC service expanded to weekends to support tourism. She pointed out that Jefferson has no dedicated revenue source that could help support the MARC service long term.
According to Bates, Jefferson County generates $160 million in annual tourism revenue for the state through a motel tax. Noland said total state taxes from Jefferson County tourism amounts to more than $800 million a year — and that money should be taken into consideration when state officials look to fund the commuter service in the future.
“There’s got to be a better system in place,” Noland said. “If we’re generating that much funding from tourism, we should be seeing more of a return on that tourism dollar back in this county so that we can address things like this.”
State Auditor John “JB” McCuskey offered to help Eastern Panhandle local governments generate additional savings to apply to the rail service through rebates earned from local government payments made through the state’s debit card payment program. The rebates come from debit card bank interchange rebates.
Jefferson County Finance Director Michelle Gordon said the state debit card program currently generates about $17,000 in rebates for the county. Based on an estimate of other payments the county could make through the debit card program, the county could generate about $40,000 to $45,000 in new revenue or savings, she said.
After neglecting MARC funding for years, the West Virginia Legislature provided $1.3 million last year for the train’s three stops in the Eastern Panhandle. This year, the Legislature provided $1.1 million of the $3.4 million Maryland wants to keep the trains running through the fiscal budget year that ends June 30.
Maryland officials have threatened to reduce the current service of six trains between Martinsburg and Union Station to one 5 a.m. eastbound train and one 4:25 p.m. westbound train.
The Maryland Transit Administration reported that it would provide MARC riders a 30-day notice before implementing any service reduction.