MARC to add weekend service to Washington

Maryland's MARC commuter trains, which have always operated Monday through Friday, will begin offering weekend service between Baltimore and Washington on the Penn Line in coming months.

The expansion — put on hold in 2008 when the recession hit — is possible as the result of the new transportation revenue law that raises the state's gas tax, officials said. The governor signed the bill Thursday.

The news was welcomed by Baltimore officials, who said it would offer city residents a less expensive means than Amtrak of traveling to Washington for weekend events while also encouraging D.C. residents to travel to Charm City.

"We hope it will encourage more visitors to consider Baltimore for day trips, long weekends and vacations since it will be easier than ever to get here seven days a week," said Tom Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore.

But Del. Michael Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican who fought the gas tax increase, said he sees nothing in the MARC expansion that will benefit his constituents.

"They'll be operating at a loss, and they'll be expecting the rural areas to subsidize it," he said.

Del. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, said weekend MARC service was a top priority for city lawmakers in the transportation bill, which won the support of the entire delegation with the exception of one delegate.

"So many of our people not only work in D.C. but also want to socialize and enjoy the cultural arts in D.C.," she said.

MARC has operated Monday through Friday since its creation in the 1980s.

MARC expansion was one of 10 highway and transit initiatives — together worth about $1.2 billion — announced Thursday by the Maryland Department of Transportation as the result of passage of the transportation bill.

"It's allowing us to make improvements in every part of the state from Western Maryland to Southern Maryland to the Eastern Shore and to the metropolitan areas — both highways and transit," said acting Transportation Secretary Darrell B. Mobley.

The projects include long-sought highway expansion projects in the Baltimore region and continued funding for the design of the east-west Red Line light rail project between Woodlawn and Bayview.

When fully implemented, the transportation bill is expected to provide more than $800 million in added transportation revenue each year, primarily through an increase of 13 cents to 20 cents per gallon on the gas tax. Whether it will cost motorists the higher or lower amount depends on what Congress does with a bill allowing states to apply sales taxes to Internet purchases.

Of the $1.2 billion in new projects, $100 million will be directed to MARC improvements, including weekend service.

Maryland Transit Administration spokesman Terry Owens said the agency has entered into negotiations with Amtrak — which owns the track on which the Penn Line runs — to find slots in the national railroad's weekend schedule to allow the MARC service. MTA officials said they hope to offer eight round trips on Saturdays and Sundays.

Simon R. Taylor, the MTA's chief administrator, said it is too early to announce a date for the beginning of weekend service. Written material provided by the department estimated that it would start this winter.

"It will be sooner rather than later. It's a top priority for us," Taylor said. He said the weekend service would primarily run between Washington's Union Station and Baltimore's Penn Station, not to the northern end of the Penn Line at Perryville, but said some trains could go as far as Middle River.

Rafi Guroian, chairman of the MARC Riders Advisory Council, said the news was "fantastic."

"This is an enhancement to the MARC service we've been waiting for," he said.

Guroian said many MARC commuters sometimes have to work on weekends, and that Saturday and Sunday service will make the commuter trains that much more attractive.