When Florida Gov. Rick Scott returned the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) $2.4 billion in federal rail funding earlier this year, the eyes of politicians in various states lit up like a home run hitter getting ready to slam a hanging curveball.
Among the states quick to step up to the plate and swing for the fences was Maryland, which is not only looking for funds for road improvements, but has similar needs for rail funding — just as the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process has started to further populate a crowded region with more jobs, as well as more commuters.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley promptly met with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to make the state’s case to acquire some of the funding, part of which would be directed toward the BWI Marshall Rail Station for its redevelopment. That would entail a section of the rail, a new platform, a facility update and better pedestrian access.
“Transportation infrastructure projects, including passenger rail, offer a path to economic recovery and a stronger, more competitive future for Maryland and the nation,” said O’Malley, in a statement.
“We stand ready to work with Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration and other states along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor to initiate additional planning and construction projects that create jobs and are so vital to the Corridor,” he said.
In the case of Maryland, “You’re talking about infrastructure improvements that would improve high-speed rail service between Boston and D.C.,” said Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT).
As for what will become the $2.4 billion redistribution round that Florida rejected, MDOT is submitting applications for two specific projects, Cahalan said. One is the $262 million to complete the planning and engineering and construction for the BWI Marshall Rail Station’s planned improvements, which include the addition of that fourth track that would stretch a total of nine miles (roughly 4.5 miles in each direction) and would intersect the station.
It would also include the addition of another platform between the two existing tracks, thus allowing passengers to board from three platforms instead of two at the station, which is used by about 450,000 MARC riders and 654,000 Amtrak passengers annually.
Secondly, Cahalan said, MDOT wants $200 million for the Northern Maryland Capacity and Trip Time Improvement Program, which was created to replace three bridges that were all built in the early 1900s (and is also on the Penn Line, as is the BWI Marshall station) in Northeast Maryland
“While they’re still functional and safe, ultimately they will need to be replaced,” he said of the structures, which span the Bush, Gunpowder and Shenandoah rivers. “Right now, each carries two tracks, but part of the goal is to widen them all to at least three, and possibly four, rails.”
Linking the Northeast
There are the three other propriety rail projects that remain in focus for the state when more federal funding comes available — the B&P Tunnel Replacement, grade separation work and a third track for the Chesapeake Connector from Perryville to Elkton, and electronic (and other) improvements between Silver Spring and Brunswick.
“If Maryland garners its part (of the $2.4 billion in funding during this round), we have to use the money by 2017,” said Cahalan, noting that since plans for the station and the bridges are underway, they can be completed sooner.
Jean Friedberg, regional transportation coordinator for the BRAC Regional Growth Management Committee, called the opportunity to apply for the funding “great news for Maryland and our partners throughout the Northeast Corridor. The program will build on, and improve, what is already the country’s most important and successful high-speed rail service.
“We should expect not only an improvement in service for existing customers,” Friedberg said, “but also the creation of new jobs and business opportunities that inevitably flow from well-conceived infrastructure investments.”
Equally enthusiastic about the opportunity is Dennis Donovan, principal with Bridgewater, N.J.-based Wadley-Donovan-Gutshaw Consulting. “I don’t know that I would call [acquiring the funding] a necessity in Florida, but it is in the Northeast Corridor, notably Baltimore,” he said, “without a doubt.”
Donovan is already envisioning the “increased flowering of transit villages, in close proximately” to the BWI Marshall station that recalled (fairly) recent talk of an Aerotropolis around BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.
“Even more than carpooling, people are being encouraged to take mass transit which, all told, burns less carbon,” he said. “This would motivate people to move within that area. I can’t see a downside.”
Donovan foresees the improvement of the Philadelphia to Richmond connection, as well. “[The trend] is just following the economy,” he said. “There’s an ever-increasing linkage with D.C. and Richmond, and improving the MARC rail line provides another economic link to the Baltimore-Washington region.
Alas, this isn’t just your father’s Baltimore-Washington Corridor anymore. “It’s New York to Richmond and Baltimore is about in middle,” he said.
Rail vs. Road
While many observers point to BRAC movement whenever the topic of infrastructure needs is broached, it’s hardly the whole story.
“Frankly, even in the absence of BRAC and cybersecurity, with the ongoing organic growth of Fort Meade, Central Maryland is in desperate need for improving transit options,” said Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group in Baltimore.
Maryland, Basu pointed out, is associated with “the nation’s second longest commute [according to the U.S. Census Bureau]. Much of that congestion is concentrated along a small number of major highways that link Central Maryland together,” he said. “Given the expected increase in economic activities in and around Fort Meade, there should be broad agreement that this part of the state is in particular need of expanded transit options and performance.”
But, speaking of road congestion, other observers are not convinced that those arteries shouldn’t be addressed and improved first.
“My concern is that the level of funding required to do high-speed rail right could prevent us from addressing smaller projects that could be accomplished in less time,” said Claire Louder, president of the West Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce.
She pointed to the need to widen key arteries that surround Fort Meade, such Route 175 and Route 198 (which are already on the books); and Route 32, as well as the Transit-Oriented Developed project, the Village at Odenton Station, at the Odenton MARC station.
“That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the updates that MDOT is discussing should not be pursued,” she said. “However, we need to do a cost-benefit analysis for high-speed rail to ensure that the benefits of the project outweigh the costs of delaying the road projects.”
It’s not hard to find observers, however, who think that rail upgrades are equally urgent.
“I think this is critically important for the Northeast (USDOT designated the Boston to Washington stretch as the 11th and final high-speed rail Corridor in the nation, making Maryland eligible for the funding),” said Sen. Ben Cardin. “We have a lot of rail projects that need to be upgraded in the Northeast that are ready to go. We just need the funds.
“Many of the upgrades require an investment in our infrastructure. They’re not just about speed, but reliability and safety, too,” said Cardin, noting that the Northeast Corridor accounts for roughly one-fifth of the nation’s gross domestic product, 20% of the nation’s population — and features the nation’s only operating high-speed train.
As for those applications to the U.S. Department of Transportation, they will be delivered in early April.
“There’s not a bottleneck on BWI MARC’s Penn Line now,” said Cahalan, “but what the additional infrastructure updates would do is increase capacity and offer the ability to move trains in and out of the station faster.”
“If the funds are there, we’re ready to go. And I think our chances of getting them are excellent,” Cardin said. “The Northeast Corridor has the highest volume of rail traffic in the country, so it has the ridership and support to use these funds quickly.”