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MARC future unclear

March 21, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- With three weeks remaining in the West Virginia Legislature's 60-day regular session, legislative proposals aimed at preserving MARC commuter service in the Eastern Panhandle are moving forward, but their passage is far from clear.

One bill faces significant obstacles because a price tag is attached, while another makes no immediate funding guarantees, but appears to open the door for longer term stability, according to Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, and Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

Senate Bill 607 proposes the creation of the Commuter Rail Access Act, which would cost the state $500,000 in general fund revenue, according to a State Tax Department fiscal note attached to the legislation.

"It's questionable," Snyder said when asked if the bill would pass. "We have an uphill battle, there's no question about that."

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The legislation proposes the state give railroad track owner CSX Transportation a tax credit for allowing MARC's operator, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), to use the rail line in West Virginia at no charge to provide commuter service to the Harpers Ferry, Duffields and Martinsburg stations.

The legislation was recommended for passage Friday by the Senate Transportation & Infrastructure Committee that Unger chairs, but he said getting it through the Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Walt Helmick, would be a significant hurdle given increasing budget concerns.

"That's going to have a bumpy road," Unger said.

The same proposal was introduced Thursday in the House of Delegates as House Bill 3232, which is sponsored by Jefferson County Democratic delegates John Doyle, Tiffany Lawrence and Bob Tabb; Berkeley County Republican delegates Craig Blair, Walter Duke and John Overington; and Del. Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan.

While Snyder has taken the lead with SB 607, Unger is the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 382, which he said would give the West Virginia State Rail Authority the responsibility of coordinating activities with the MTA to ensure MARC service continues in the Eastern Panhandle.

No price tag has been attached to the bill, but putting MARC under the rail authority's control would allow West Virginia to "draw down" federal money, Unger said.

"For years, we've left money on the table because we couldn't justify taking it, now we can" if the bill is enacted, Unger said.

The bill also would increase the rail authority's spending flexibility, increasing the cap on acquiring "rolling stock and equipment" from $100,000 to $500,000, Unger said.

Unger said the legislation, which has been passed by both the Senate Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and the Finance Committee, is backed by the Department of Transportation.

SB 382 is scheduled to be considered by the full Senate next week, according to the State Legislature's Office of Reference & Information.

Unger said the bill has bipartisan support, noting Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, and Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, also are sponsoring the bill.

In addition to the two bills, Snyder, Unger and four other senators, including Helmick, are sponsoring a Senate Concurrent Resolution that formally asks for Gov. Joe Manchin's assistance in securing the future of MARC service in the Eastern Panhandle.

The resolution notes after a $2 fare increase went into effect in February at West Virginia's three MARC stations, a significant number of residents had stopped boarding the commuter train. The MTA last year proposed to cut service because of budget concerns, but backed off after the fare was proposed.

Unger and Snyder both have said the fare increase was an emergency action needed to keep the MTA from eliminating the commuter train service altogether.

Both legislative proposals now pending, however, are steps in a "very systematic approach" to developing a long-term solution Unger said wouldn't have been possible if he and Snyder were not in unique positions to act.

Snyder said their legislative push on the MARC issue has "certainly got everyone's attention, including the governor's office."

He said other bills concerning railroad issues are being eyed for possible amendment to address the MARC issue as the regular session comes to an end.

"We are leaving no stone unturned," Snyder said of alternative means to get legislation passed. "You never know how this is going to end."

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