In a closed-door meeting Thursday evening, representatives of seven Eastern Panhandle cities and counties came up with a tentative plan to contribute a total of $300,000 to continue MARC commuter rail service into the panhandle, Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said Friday.
That was after a representative of the Governor’s Office told the group that Gov. Jim Justice is willing to increase state funding to continue the six-trains-per-day operations, if the Eastern Panhandle localities make a serious financial commitment to the service, Doyle said.
He said Berkeley Bentley, deputy general counsel to Justice, addressed the meeting in Charles Town.
“He said the governor is willing to step up to the plate, providing that the local governments come up with significant money,” Doyle said.
Doyle said representatives from Berkeley and Jefferson counties, and from the cities of Martinsburg, Charles Town, Ranson, Harpers Ferry, Bolivar and Shepherdstown, then came up with a proposal for a funding formula based on population.
Contributions would range from just over $170,000 for Berkeley County to $410 for Harpers Ferry, whose Town Council has already pledged $2,500 to maintain MARC service.
“These representatives have to go back to their governing bodies, and say, ‘This is our allotment. Can we do it?’” said Doyle, who said he was encouraged about the proposal.
For years, the Maryland Transit Authority operated MARC rail service into the panhandle without funding from West Virginia. However, beginning in 2018, the authority said it would need $3.2 million a year from West Virginia to subsidize the costs of providing the commuter rail service into the panhandle.
Last year, the West Virginia Legislature appropriated $1.5 million for MARC service and, during the 2019 regular session, appropriated $1.1 million for the 2019-20 budget year.
Shortly after, MTA officials began discussing plans to cut MARC service to the panhandle from six trains per weekday — three eastbound to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station each morning and three westbound in the evening — to single trains each morning and evening.
In September, the MTA held a public hearing on the cutbacks in Charles Town, drawing an overflow crowd that voiced objections to any reduction of service.
A public comment period on the reductions, tentatively set to take effect in November, expired Monday, but the MTA has not yet issued a formal notice of any cutbacks.
An MTA spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Doyle said Friday that he believes, if there are guaranteed pledges of funding from the state and the panhandle localities, Maryland officials would probably be open to negotiations with West Virginia.
He noted that a local commuter rail advocate analyzed MARC’s system-wide operating budget, and concluded that West Virginia’s subsidy should be more in the range of $2.3 million a year.
“Until we actually sit down and negotiate with Maryland, who knows what that amount might be,” Doyle said.
Thursday’s meeting was organized by Dan Dulyea, vice president of the Berkeley County Council, and Delegate Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley.