On the Bus, not the Rails, for Cecil County Commuters: State Stalls MARC Plans Again
Cecil County commuters will get a new bus serviceâ€”and maybe even a seat if Delaware travelers havenâ€™t snagged them allâ€”to reach the commuter rail station in Perryville, but extending the rail line to Elkton and beyond is being stalled yet again, state transportation leaders told Cecil County officials recently.
And state officials dismissed a growing clamor by local elected officials, from State Sen. Steve Hershey (R-36), Perryville Mayor Jim Eberhart, and County Council members to alleviate traffic nightmares and rush-hour jams on roads near the Hatem Bridge by allowing Hatem EZ passes to be used on the I-95 Tydings bridge over the Susquehanna River during rush hours.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn was accompanied by a gaggle of state roads and transit officials, including one who apparently thought the Aberdeen Proving Ground was in Cecil County as he touted a new Baltimore to APG commuter bus line. (Uh, wrong county, wrong direction to benefit Cecil commutersâ€¦)
Cecil County leaders and Elkton town officials have long sought extension of the MARC commuter rail line, which now ends in Perryville and is the only passenger rail gap in the entire Northeast rail corridor. Re-instating service to Elkton, and extending service into nearby Delaware where a new federally subsidized train hub is being developed, would be a boon to economic development in the county and town.
County officials thought the prospects had improved immensely when MARC officials came courting the local government last year with a plan to build a new railcar storage and maintenance facility in the Perryville area, saying that the facility was a pre-requisite to any extension of MARC service in the county.
But, in a meeting with local officials on 9/30/16, Rahn delivered the bad news that negotiations on a preferred site were at a stalemate since the landowner wanted about $11 million for the property but a state appraisal valued it at less than $6 million. In addition, state gasoline tax revenues are down by about $746 million due to lower gas prices, with the result, Rahn said, that an earlier projection of a 2018 railyard opening would be delayed by at least four years.
Aides said the Perryville site was an â€śideal spotâ€ť and no other locations were currently being sought but Rahn said that â€śThereâ€™s no interest in doing it anywhere but Cecil County.â€ť State officials have said that they must have a railyard east of the Susquehanna River in order to expand service beyond Perryville.
After dashing the countyâ€™s commuter rail hopes yet again, state officials tossed a bus bone into the pot, announcing that the state would provide funds for two buses that would travel from Newark, DE through Cecil County to bring passengers to the Perryville MARC station, with schedules coordinated ; with the train service times. Perryville station users have long complained that most available parking spaces near that station are jammed with Delaware-registered cars. So when the bus service is operational in 2017 as what Maryland officials called â€śan interim solution,â€ť Cecil County commuters can fight the Delawareans for a bus seat, too.
Meanwhile, Rahn said that a proposal by local officials to allow the Hatem Bridge EZ pass transponders to be used on the I95 Tydings Bridge during rush hours would create an â€śissueâ€ť with â€ścovenants on our bondsâ€ť used to finance bridge construction projects. He said that revenues from tolls on each bridge are pledged to pay off bonds used to construct or repair that bridge. The Hatem Bridge provides a $20 annual fee EZ pass that is good for unlimited crossings only on that facility, while the Tydings bridge is tied into broader EZ pass commuter policies based on bridge crossings in a monthly time period.
Sen. Hershey responded that if the passes could not be used interchangeably, he would renew past demands that the I-95 toll plaza be moved close to the Delaware line, so that most Cecil County commuters would have an option of crossing the Susquehanna toll-free. â€śI have a fundamental problemâ€ť with imposing tolls on all bridge access routes into Cecil County, Hershey said, adding the tolls were a â€śdetriment to businessâ€ť in the county. While Cecil residents can obtain the special $20 a year EZ passes, Gov. Hogan did not lower the Hatemâ€™s $8 per car toll for occasional visitors and touristsâ€”unlike the per-trip toll cut to $4 per car on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Rahn made brief mention of new statistics showing that Cecil County had record traffic fatalities and the highest per-capita pedestrian death rate in the state last year. [SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2016/09/traffic-deaths-rise-in-cecil-county-as-transportation-plan-pushes-different-priorities/ ]
â€śWe need a new strategy to reduce pedestrian fatalities,â€ť Rahn observed, calling the death rate â€śshocking.â€ť But, he noted, some fatalities are the result of human error, such as not using crosswalks. â€śSometimes we canâ€™t correct stupid.â€ť