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MARC will stay on track in W.Va.

December 17, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Maryland and West Virginia officials who met Wednesday reached a tentative agreement to stave off proposed cuts to the Eastern Panhandle's MARC commuter train service, state Sen. John Unger said.

"There's definitely a commitment on both sides to not have the service cut," said Unger, who suggested the face-to-face meeting with West Virginia Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox and Maryland's transportation secretary John D. Porcari earlier this month.

"In principle, it's going to happen. It's just a matter of specifics," Unger said.

The details could include a fare increase of up $2 per trip for West Virginia riders, according to state Sen.-elect Herb Snyder, who joined Mattox, Unger, Gov. Joe Manchin's legislative services director Jim Pitrulo, West Virginia State Rail Authority executive director Cindy Butler and two other state officials for the meeting with Porcari and Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) leaders in Hanover, Md.

MTA operates MARC services, which include morning and evening trains to Harpers Ferry and Duffields stations in Jefferson County and to Martinsburg in Berkeley County.

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"It was a deadly serious meeting," said Snyder, who added that he left with the feeling that all of MARC's service to West Virginia was "very vulnerable" because of Maryland's budget troubles.

As proposed, only Train 883, the last to leave Washington's Union Station for the Eastern Panhandle, would be reduced if MTA's service reduction proposal is put into effect in January 2009, according to a MTA news release. The train would end at Brunswick instead of Martinsburg.

"MTA is really in a bind," said Snyder, noting the agency is working on a $1.2 billion capital budget cut after already cutting another $1.1 billion.

Unger, who chairs the Senate Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, said the numbers and revenue sources still have to be sorted out, but he expects Gov. Manchin to take the lead in making an announcement on the state's commitment to the MARC service - assuming Eastern Panhandle lawmakers are also still in agreement to preserve it.

Aside from money spent on maintenance and capital improvements at each of the three train stations in the Eastern Panhandle, West Virginia has not contributed toward operation costs for many years, officials have said.

"If we didn't have this meeting today, I am convinced we would have had a train wreck as far as MARC service to the Eastern Panhandle is concerned," Unger said.

The meeting at Porcari's office resulted in agreement on both sides for cost-sharing, a long-term commitment by the state transportation secretaries to meet regularly to discuss MARC issues, including long-term projects and other interstate transportation concerns.

Snyder was cautiously optimistic that the MTA's budget committee would accept a cost-sharing package to preserve MARC service to West Virginia and expected some resolution to be announced by the end of the year.

To reduce costs, Unger said MARC needs additional rail siding in West Virginia so the last train to Martinsburg can park overnight, instead of being forced to return empty to Brunswick.

Maryland officials reacted positively to having an additional (third) train leave in the morning from Martinsburg, Unger said.

Maryland Department of Transportation spokesperson Erin Henson said public comment on MTA's proposed cuts will be received through Dec. 26, while MTA officials have said previously a decision could be made by the end of 2008.

"We're certainly open to some other possible solutions," Henson said before the meeting.

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