ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Upgrading platforms and adding weekend MARC train runs are up for discussion as state lawmakers begin brainstorming about the rail system that carries hundreds of Frederick County residents to work each day.
As gas prices soar, the rail line that links Brunswick and Frederick to the nation's capital grows in importance, state officials say. Last month, the Maryland Transit Administration announced the number of commuters using the system had spiked to record-breaking levels, with MARC train ridership up 6.1 percent over the same time last year.
Maryland legislators hope strengthening the transportation service through a newly formed coalition will power the local economy and offer more commuters an escape from gridlocked traffic.
Delegates Galen Clagett and Al Carr, whose constituents board the MARC trains to travel from Frederick and Montgomery counties to D.C., organized the work group to discuss short- and long-term improvements to the rail system.
"We're starting the wheels in motion, and once we (home) in on targets, then we'll ... pressure for funding," Clagett said.
Lawmakers representing districts crossed by MARC lines will gather a couple of times during the legislative session, which is scheduled to end April 9, and then will hold regular meetings after the Maryland General Assembly adjourns.
In the near future, Clagett said, he'd like to see platforms upgraded, more frequent trips and extended service times. The last Brunswick line train now leaves Union Station at 7:15 p.m.
Offering train service on weekends could draw more people into Frederick city to shop and dine, Clagett said.
Increasing system reliability would also boost ridership, said Delegate Michael Hough, whose district includes the Brunswick and Point of Rocks stations. Heat restrictions and signal problems can cause lengthy delays. As someone who uses the MARC system to travel to Washington, Hough said he has sometimes gotten home more than an hour late.
Hough, who plans to participate in the work group, said he is glad lawmakers are starting to discuss MARC improvements with stakeholders and state agencies.
"The MARC is heavily used, and the MARC for a long time has (had) a lot of problems," said Hough, although he added the system is still a good alternative to congested highways. "It's an easy commute. You can take a nap, read a book ... stress-free versus trying to drive in bumper-to-bumper."
In a news release announcing the work group's formation, Clagett said he would reach out to transportation advisory groups and chambers of commerce in Frederick County, which daily sends about 1,600 people onto the MARC train from its four stations.
Near the Point of Rocks stop, the Brunswick line splits, sending one branch toward Frederick and the other to Martinsburg, W.Va. Because of the track design, only trains coming from West Virginia pick up or drop off passengers at the Point of Rocks station; the trains from Frederick pass without stopping.
Limited funding, however, will present a problem when trying to address some of these concerns, said John Hovatter, director of MARC train service.
Plans to build a new platform in Point of Rocks fizzled a couple years ago after cost estimates added up to millions of dollars.
Proffitt's committee is looking for ways to breathe life into the project by attracting funding and decreasing costs. He hopes Clagett's work group will help bring the issue to the forefront, he said.
"The (Brunswick) line ... is a major commuter spine, and the key is to get that on the radar screen and get it treated as such," he said.