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W.Va. Senate OKs tax credit for E. Panhandle commuter rail service

April 02, 2013|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthewu@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The West Virginia Senate unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that would provide a subsidy for the MARC commuter train service in the Eastern Panhandle.

Senate Bill 103, which proposes the creation of the West Virginia Commuter Rail Access Act, passed by a 33-0 vote. State Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, was absent, according to the roll call for the bill.

The legislation would provide a mechanism for the state to give CSX Transportation a tax credit for not billing the Maryland-run commuter rail service for its use of the railroad’s tracks in West Virginia.

For 2013, MARC’s bill from CSX would be $716,000 in track access charges, said state Sen. Herb Snyder, the lead sponsor of the legislation.

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If the proposal becomes law, the tax credit would not be available until July 1, 2014, and a formal operating agreement between Maryland and Virginia must be in place in order for the railroad to receive the tax credit, said Snyder, D-Jefferson/Berkeley.

“It’s not done yet, but I’m very optimistic,” Snyder said of the bill’s chances for passage in the House of Delegates in the final days of the regular session, which ends April 13 at midnight.

The Brunswick line of the MARC (Maryland Area Regional Commuter) train takes area riders daily, Monday through Friday, from Martinsburg in Berkeley County to Union Station in Washington, D.C., with stops in Duffields and Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County.

Snyder said the bill’s advancement in the Senate, particularly through the finance committee, took “every bit of charm I could muster.” 

Getting the bill to the Senate floor last week for a first reading was the furthest the legislation ever had advanced in the Senate, and Snyder hopes it only is referred to one committee in the House for consideration there.

A House-introduced version of the same bill this year stalled in the House Finance Committee after passing out of the House Roads and Transportation Committee.

While the city of Martinsburg owns and maintains its train station and the West Virginia State Rail Authority maintains the other two stations in Jefferson County, the state currently does not allocate money toward MARC’s operation. Snyder said it has been more than 10 years since West Virginia made any such appropriation.

Snyder said the continued lack of operational support from West Virginia combined with Maryland’s budget woes led to the addition of a $2-per-trip fee, which some have dubbed “the hillbilly tax,” for MARC riders from the Eastern Panhandle’s three train stations.

Whether that fee is reduced or eliminated as a result of the changes the legislation proposes remains to be seen, Snyder said.

Snyder said the current arrangement with MARC might be the only interstate commuter service in the nation that is being provided without a formal operating agreement.

End-of-year figures for 2012 show the average daily MARC ridership on the Brunswick line from Martinsburg was 186 passengers, followed by Duffields (159) and Harpers Ferry (111), according to Maryland Transit Administration spokesman Joe Sviatko.

The average daily ridership for the entire Brunswick line was 7,784 passengers.

Home rule program

In other legislative action Tuesday, the House Government Organization Committee unanimously backed legislation to continue and expand the state’s Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program, said committee member Del. Larry Kump, R-Berkeley.

“There wasn’t one dissenting vote, which is unusual,” Kump said of the committee action.

Kump said the House Government Organization Committee approved a committee substitute for Senate Bill 435 that would prohibit municipalities in the home-rule program from instituting restrictions on gun control and related Second Amendment rights.

The House committee’s version of the bill now is on track for a House floor vote, Kump said. Should it pass, the Senate then would be tasked with deciding whether or not it will accept the House changes.

Kump said municipal leaders in the towns of Hedgesville and Bath in Berkeley and Morgan counties, respectively, have expressed interest in applying to be part of the home-rule program.

Martinsburg and Ranson city leaders also have expressed interest in the pilot program, and Kump said he has fielded phone calls from across the state.

“The cities and towns are really chomping at the bit for this,” Kump said.

Martinsburg and Ranson officials have indicated the legislation could provide additional revenue for city coffers by being allowed to implement a sales tax of up to 1 percent and reduce business and occupation taxes.

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