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Legislation would expand MARC, encourage nearby development

Del. Jazz Lewis (left) and Del. Jared Solomon stand in front of the MARC rail sign at the New Carrollton transit station. (Johanna Alonso/The Daily Record)

Maryland legislators have introduced a pair of bills that aim to strengthen Maryland’s rail transit infrastructure and better connect its railway system to neighboring states.

The first, HB778, also known as the Maryland Regional Rail Transformation Act, would require the state to take initial steps on a number of projects related to the Maryland Area Regional Commuter train (better known as the MARC train).

These projects include several new stations and routes, including routes that would connect the MARC train to Alexandria, Virginia, and to Newark, Delaware, as well as extend service in the state’s western panhandle.

The bill, which is being co-sponsored by 26 delegates, including two Republicans, will also require the Maryland Transit Authority to begin working on enhancements and improvements to each of the MARC’s three existing lines.

“(This) will be a complete revitalization and reimagining of our MARC rail system,” said Del. Jared Solomon, D-Montgomery, the bill’s lead sponsor in the House, at a news conference at the New Carrollton transit station Wednesday morning.

Most of these projects were first laid out in the MARC Cornerstone Plan, a report released by MTA in 2019 that explained MTA’s priorities and goals for the coming 25 years. The plan predicts run-through service to Virginia would cost nearly $2.1 billion and improvements to the Penn Line, which runs from Perryville in Cecil County to Washington, D.C., would cost a total of $5.7 billion. Improvements to the Brunswick Line, which serves Western Maryland and West Virginia, were predicted to cost $1.3 billion.

Aside from the creation of new routes and infill stations, other projects laid out in the plan include adding additional tracks to the Penn and Camden Lines and adding weekend and midday service to the Camden and Brunswick lines, which currently run only on the weekdays.

These projects would seek totake advantage of funds allocated to Maryland’s rail system through President Joe Biden’s federal infrastructure package, known as the Build Back Better Act. Through this legislation, Maryland will be allocated $7 billion for infrastructure improvements, including $1.8 billion specifically for transit and rail.

On top of that amount, “there’s another $90 billion pot of federal money for rail that Maryland and others can compete for. And we need to be ready. Maryland needs to be ready to compete for that $90 billion so those investments can go to work right here in our community,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen. “The MARC system is a great asset to our state … but we can do a lot better. We do need to expand this great asset.”

If passed, the bill would require MTA to create an investment program for each project, with each program including, among other things, a review of current rail operations, rail simulation models for both existing corridors and areas for which new routes are planned, improvement plans to enhance the MARC’s service over time and more.

The second bill aims to improve Maryland’s existing Transit Oriented Developments, which are defined as dense, mixed-use developments within a half-mile of transit stations that are deliberately designed to increase ridership. There are currently 17 in the state of Maryland.

The bill, HB710, will alter the More Jobs for Marylanders Program, a tax incentive program that offers benefits to new businesses offering jobs in certain high-need areas. The bill will afford those same benefits to businesses opening within TODs. The bill’s sponsors hope this will incentivize more businesses to open near transit, increasing ridership and access to jobs for transit users.

The bill will also create a fund to give small grants and loans to local governments to fund design, planning, construction or gap funding for development projects within TODs.

For example, if a developer were trying to put a grocery store on the ground floor of a residential complex in a TOD, money from the fund could be used to fill in the gap between what the local jurisdiction and the developer can afford and how much that project would actually cost, according to Del. Jazz Lewis, D-Prince George’s, the bill’s main sponsor.

“For Marylanders who do not have access to a car, mass transit is essential, but not always convenient. Jobs are not always located in transit hubs where they can be easily accessed by riders,” said Lewis, who is sponsoring the bill in the house alongside Del. Marc Korman, D-Montgomery, and Solomon. “Our legislation will allow Maryland to target development where it can be supported by transit access to encourage more people to use the transportation infrastructure to get to the jobs that they need.”

The fund will prioritize projects that improve access to transit for low-income and minority residents and projects in areas with high amounts of affordable housing and a diverse array of job and educational opportunities. Projects near underutilized or underdeveloped transit stations will also be prioritized.

HB710 and HB778 will have hearings Thursday in the House Environment and Transportation and Appropriations Committees, respectively.