Delaware legislators offer bill aimed at getting Maryland commuter trains to Newark

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Amid signs that Maryland is becoming more receptive to extending its commuter rail line to Delaware,  state  Rep. Ed Osienski and state Sen. Stephanie Hansen filed legislation that would authorize the Delaware Department of Transportation to work with other agencies to improve the regional rail network.

House Concurrent Resolution 81 would direct DelDOT to work with the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania, Amtrak and all appropriate regional entities to connect and enhance the regional rail service that serves the three states.

The connection has been talked about for decades, but always ran into resistance  from Maryland governors and legislators who tend to focus on Washington, DC suburbs and Baltimore. So far, efforts to add a MARC  stop in the county seat town of Elkton have been futile.

Maryland has also struggled with issues related to Baltimore’s light rail system, which has never lived up to ridership expectations. Mass transit in general has seen declines in ridership, a common occurrence during prosperous periods. That period ended dramatically as states responded to coronavirus.

The measure comes after a bill the Maryland General Assembly passed earlier this year requiring the Maryland Transit Administration to work with Delaware to establish a Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train service between Perryville, Md. and Newark.

Currently, there is no commuter rail service running between Newark and Perryville, which is one of the only regional rail gaps along the Northeastern Corridor, and the only one between New York and Washington, D.C. Delawareans wishing to travel via train to Baltimore or DC are required to either take Amtrak – which is more expensive – or drive to the Perryville station to ride on a MARC train.

With the new Newark rail station under construction and slated to open next year, lawmakers want to connect  MARC and SEPTA, which runs through southeastern Pennsylvania down to Newark – at the future Newark hub.

“As we continue to encourage Delawareans to use public transit more and more, we have to ensure that there are viable options for residents,” said Rep. Osienski, D-Brookside, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. “We want to study the costs and logistics around expanding regional rail through Delaware. It will benefit riders and commuters in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It will open job opportunities for residents who could more easily commute, and it will open access for people throughout the region. 

“Expanding rail service between these states also would reduce vehicle traffic along the I-95 corridor – reducing emissions and improving safety as well – which is especially important with the interstate rehabilitation project starting next year.”

Critics claim to scoff at such claims, citing the relatively few commuters who would be able to get to their jobs via train. 

Under Maryland’s bill, which is still awaiting Governor Larry Hogan’s signature, Maryland Transit Administration would establish two morning routes from Perryville to Newark, and two evening trains from Newark to Perryville, closing the 20-mile commuter rail gap between the two stations.

Any work is expected to remain on hold as both Delaware, Maryland and the nation face a fiscal crisis. Transit service is now at minimal levels, with the federal government dispatching funds to deal with drops in ridership.

One ray of hope is the possibility of a federal stimulus package aimed at creating jobs and reviving the post-coronavirus economy  would include infrastructure projects in transportation.

“Extending commuter rail service from Perryville to Newark could have tremendous benefits on a number of fronts,” said   Hansen, D-Middletown, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. “More public transportation options would mean fewer cars on the road, which means less traffic and less pollution. These routes also would provide our residents with greater access to jobs throughout the region. Anything we can do to close this gap in regional rail will be well worth the effort.”

Although the First State does not have its own rail service, Delaware Transit Corporation (operator of DART buses)  is charged with contracting with SEPTA and Amtrak to bring rail to Delaware, and any expansion of commuter rail with MARC would fall under DTC’s purview as well.

“Expanding commuter rail service in Delaware has been an ongoing goal of DelDOT and the Delaware Transit Corporation,” said DTC CEO John Sisson. “We have invested in projects, including the addition of a third track south of Wilmington and the Newark Regional Transportation Center to allow us to increase the train capacity in Delaware. We look forward to working with all our partners to identify the best ways to expand commuter rail service in Delaware, including service into Maryland.”

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