MARC train in Maryland by Ryan Stavely licensed under Creative Commons.

Even with the coronavirus pandemic cutting short the Maryland General Assembly’s legislative session March 18 for the first time since the Civil War, Governor Larry Hogan still had 50 days to decide which of the hundreds of bills passed by the legislature this year to sign into law or let become law without his signature and which to veto.

On May 7, Hogan vetoed 37 of those bills, including HB (House Bill) 1236, or the MARC Train Expansion of Service Act, an ambitious proposal to expand the scope of Maryland’s MARC (Maryland Area Rail Commuter) commuter rail system.

The bill, sponsored by Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery), primarily calls for the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Maryland Transit Administration to study running Penn Line trains through their current southern terminus at Union Station in Washington, DC, all the way to Alexandria Union Station in Virginia.

MARC and VRE lines in one map. by Peter Dovak at Transit Oriented. used with permission.

A pair of amendments, added shortly before the bill became the final bill to pass the State Senate on the final day of session, called for the MTA to study running Penn Line trains between their current northern terminus at Perryville in Cecil County and Newark, Delaware, where they’d be able to interchange with Philadelphia’s SEPTA Commuter Rail Service, and to explore building a rail connection between the two MARC lines which run through Baltimore City, the Penn and Camden Lines.

A map showing the current MARC Penn and Camden lines, along with the SEPTA Wilmington/Newark Line, and possible new service from Perryville to Newark. Map by David Ramos. (Data from OpenStreetMap and USGS.)

But despite receiving bipartisan support (a total of 27 Republicans across both chambers voted for the final version of the bill), the MARC Train Expansion of Service Act still failed to meet with Hogan’s seal of approval, because of his concerns about “MDOT’s revenue and budget shortfalls.”

As Solomon noted, however, when reached for comment, the prospect of MDOT and its Transportation Trust Fund facing a post-recession financial hit hasn’t been enough to cancel or pause the state’s $11 billion plans to widen I-270 and the Washington Beltway with toll lanes.

“I would say that there are other projects within Montgomery County that are going to cost the state a tremendous amount of money, at least upfront, that we may not need because everybody’s going to be telecommuting,” Solomon said.

“I also think it’s hard to square for economic development when we see our partner, Virginia, putting $4 billion, essentially, between state and private money on the table for rail expansion,” he added, “and here we have a very, very modest at most $1-2 million bill that suddenly we don’t have the money for? I just think it’s really hard when we’re talking about trying to stay competitive with our neighbors, and clearly both Delaware and Virginia are both important economic partners to connect our region, and we can’t invest that small amount of money to start putting a plan in place.”

The Greater Washington Partnership, a prominent supporter of the MARC Train Expansion of Service Act, expressed its sympathy for the challenges facing the Hogan Administration as the COVID-19 pandemic upends Maryland’s budget but also expressed some disappointment over the veto due to the important roles many provisions of the bill play in the latest editions of the MARC Cornerstone Plan and Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan.

“The Partnership grasps the real challenges Maryland’s budget faces as a result of the COVID-19 health crisis and the associated economic downturn, but the Governor’s veto was a setback for regional rail service,” the group said. “The Partnership will continue to work with Governor Hogan and other elected officials to advocate for the modern commuter rail system called for in the Blueprint for Regional Mobility that is essential for our region to be globally competitive.”

In the meantime, Solomon said he’d also try to work with the MTA to see if progress can be made on any of the legislation’s individual provisions without a specific bill in place, especially if the pandemic prevents the General Assembly from meeting until its next scheduled session in January.

Whether the General Assembly does wait that long to meet again or whether it meets later in the summer or fall for a special session, the MARC Train Expansion of Service Act did pass with 107 votes in the House and (unanimously) with 45 votes in the Senate, more than enough to override Hogan’s veto whenever Maryland’s legislative body does reconvene. “I’m hopeful we can get the veto overridden,” Solomon said.