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Ridership on the MARC commuter train has plummeted during the pandemic, causing state lawmakers to stop funding for Maryland that helps operate the service.

CHARLES TOWN – West Virginia’s funding for the MARC train abruptly stopped last month, prompting uncertainty and confusion once again surrounding the future of the commuter service in Jefferson and Berkeley counties.

Several state and local officials aren’t sure what’s next for the train service in West Virginia, and many are groping for reliable information. Possibilities and predictions, such as whether federal officials might provide a long-term funding rescue, swirled over the past few weeks and days.

Jefferson County Commissioner Josh Compton, who in the past questioned whether taxpayers should heavily subsidize the train service as much as $3.4 million per year (about $13,300 per average daily rider), offered an impromptu public plea last week for federal officials to step in and provide some rescue funding and some ongoing stability to the service.

Compton, a Republican, called out in particular West Virginia U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat and a Senate appropriations committee member, for some constituency support. “Sen. Manchin, if you can hear us, we need some help out here in Jefferson County,” the commissioner said.

“We need the train,” he added. “The county cannot fix the train—there’s no possible way.”

U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican member of the Senate transportation committee, has also been turned to for federal money that could possibly resolve what has become a recurring uncertainty for MARC’s fate in West Virginia.

Perhaps a federal $2 trillion “infrastructure” funding bill that President Biden announced last week would include money for the MARC, state and local officials hope. “Most people think there will be an infrastructure bill passed,” offered Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, 67th District, of the recently proposed federal legislation.

In a prepared statement last week, Capito signaled that she was hopeful that some form of federal infrastructure legislation could be enacted by Memorial Day. However, she echoed other Republicans on Capitol Hill who oppose the sprawling spending Biden and many of their Democratic counterparts are currently proposing.

No public response has come yet from Capito whether federal dollars could or should save the MARC service in West Virginia.

A Five-Year

Contract

In addressing the issue of state or federal funding for MARC that has been debated for more than a decade, Jefferson County officials have pointed out that government funding for public commuter rail equipment and operational costs throughout the country are almost exclusively supplemented from state or federal dollars. However, some state and local officials from Jefferson also have feared that even temporarily interrupting MARC service would risk the chance that Brunswick Line service stops in Harpers Ferry, Duffields and Martinsburg might never restart.

In 2018, Maryland conspicuously threatened to cut back or terminate MARC in Jefferson and Berkeley if West Virginia failed to provide at least $3.4 million annually to help defray the service’s operational costs. Afterward, West Virginia transportation officials quietly arranged a five-year funding agreement with Maryland to continue to operate three round trips on weekdays from Martinsburg to Union Station in Washington, D.C.

But in February, West Virginia State Rail Authority Director Lucinda Butler, the person tapped to preserve the MARC train service in the Eastern Panhandle, informed Maryland Transit Administration’s deputy chief operating officer, Andrea Farmer, that West Virginia had only $2.8 million to give Maryland this year.

However, Butler stated that West Virginia lawmakers had yet to release $750,000 that was to be part of what MARC funding pledged to Maryland this year. That extra funding was to be derived from savings and extra revenues from the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office.

Butler told Maryland officials to expect no additional MARC appropriations from West Virginia for the next fiscal year starting July 1. “Per paragraph 15 of our agreement, the contract [between West Virginia and Maryland] was considered canceled when the West Virginia Legislature failed to appropriate sufficient funds for FY2021,” she wrote.

Obtaining concrete information from state officials over MARC funding, meanwhile, has been elusive, some state lawmakers representing Jefferson have said. One state lawmaker from Jefferson didn’t know that West Virginia had a five-year agreement with Maryland to provide MARC funding.

Also in February, West Virginia Transportation Secretary Byrd White had already notified Jefferson County’s elected officials that state lawmakers had stopped the state’s MARC funding. In a letter dated Feb. 24, White told local officials that after March 31 that Maryland would no longer be reimbursed for MARC operations.

However, Maryland Transit Administration officials said last week that West Virginia had not provided Maryland any MARC funding for the current budget year. MTA spokesperson Brittany Marshall reported that Maryland received $1.5 million in MARC funding from West Virginia for the fiscal year starting July 2018 and $3.4 million for the fiscal year starting July 2019.

Marshall reported that any change in MARC service in West Virginia wouldn’t be made until the agency completed an “equity analysis” of the service’s funding. The agency would also gather public input of any proposed service changes by holding a public hearing and comment period, she said.

Empty trains this past year

Delegate Paul Espinosa, the Republican Majority Whip for the House of Delegates who represents Jefferson County’s 66th House district, said the decision by state lawmakers this year not to include state funding for MARC in either the proposed House or Senate budgets was based on recent ridership numbers.

The MARC ridership during the pandemic showed a “precipitous decline in ridership,” Espinosa reported. In fact, MARC trains have been operating virtually empty on the Brunswick Line since the pandemic outbreak.

In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, the number of commuters using one of the three West Virginia station stops had averaged about 255 people a day, according to Maryland Transit Administration figures. During the pandemic, from last April through February, where only two daily round trip services lines are running, that total average daily ridership dropped to 21 people.

In February, 30 people rode the train daily from the three West Virginia commuter stations, including 17 people from Martinsburg, six from Duffields and seven from Harpers Ferry.

“Needless to say with only 30 Eastern Panhandle riders per day (13 from Jefferson County), it’s difficult to make a case for a $2.8 million appropriation,” Espinosa noted in an email.

Even before the pandemic, state and local officials recognized that West Virginia’s MARC ridership would need to substantially increase to justify the funding Maryland has been requesting to support the service. Many MARC riders from Jefferson County take the service from the Brunswick, Maryland, station stop, where the fare rates are less expensive and more parking is available.  

Espinosa said he heard “speculation” that MARC service might be funded through the recent federal American Rescue Plan Act stimulus allocations directed to West Virginia or to Jefferson and Berkeley counties.

West Virginia is projected to receive $677 million from the federal funding, Jefferson is estimated to receive $11.1 million and Berkeley is expected to receive about $23.1 million. However, those COVID-19 allocations could turn out to be less, and it remains to be seen whether those allocations could be spent on MARC, some local officials have said.

Delegate Wayne Clark, a Republican representing Jefferson’s 65th district, said state lawmakers from Jefferson County still hope to place MARC appropriation on a surplus funding earmarking list that would be paid if extra state revenues become available.

However, whether MARC funding could even be placed on the surplus funding list remains to be seen, Clark said last week. And if that happens, the state wouldn’t know whether it would have extra revenues for MARC until July, he said.

In the meantime, what’s possible, what’s reliable and what may happen to the MARC service in West Virginia, once again, remains uncertain and to be seen.

As Jefferson County Administrator Stephanie Grove said last week, “I’m continuing to kind of figure out what’s going on and to try to find funding for the shortfall this year,” she said.

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