Maryland's MARC commuter trains, which have always operated Monday through Friday, will begin offering weekend service between Baltimore and Washington on the Penn Line in coming months.
The expansion -- put on hold in 2008 when the recession hit -- is possible as the result of the new transportation revenue law that raises the state's gas tax, officials said. The governor signed the bill Thursday.
The news was welcomed by Baltimore officials, who said it would offer city residents a less expensive means than Amtrak of traveling to Washington for weekend events while also encouraging D.C. residents to travel to Charm City.
"We hope it will encourage more visitors to consider Baltimore for day trips, long weekends and vacations since it will be easier than ever to get here seven days a week," said Tom Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore.
But Del. Michael Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican who fought the gas tax increase, said he sees nothing in the MARC expansion that will benefit his constituents.
"They'll be operating at a loss, and they'll be expecting the rural areas to subsidize it," he said.
Del. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, said weekend MARC service was a top priority for city lawmakers in the transportation bill, which won the support of the entire delegation with the exception of one delegate.
"So many of our people not only work in D.C. but also want to socialize and enjoy the cultural arts in D.C.," she said.
MARC has operated Monday through Friday since its creation in the 1980s.
MARC expansion was one of 10 highway and transit initiatives -- together worth about $1.2 billion -- announced Thursday by the Maryland Department of Transportation as the result of passage of the transportation bill.
"It's allowing us to make improvements in every part of the state from Western Maryland to Southern Maryland to the Eastern Shore and to the metropolitan areas -- both highways and transit," said acting Transportation Secretary Darrell B. Mobley.
The projects include long-sought highway expansion projects in the Baltimore region and continued funding for the design of the east-west Red Line light rail project between Woodlawn and Bayview.
When fully implemented, the transportation bill is expected to provide more than $800 million in added transportation revenue each year, primarily through an increase of 13 cents to 20 cents per gallon on the gas tax. Whether it will cost motorists the higher or lower amount depends on what Congress does with a bill allowing states to apply sales taxes to Internet purchases.
Of the $1.2 billion in new projects, $100 million will be directed to MARC improvements, including weekend service.
Maryland Transit Administration spokesman Terry Owens said the agency has entered into negotiations with Amtrak -- which owns the track on which the Penn Line runs -- to find slots in the national railroad's weekend schedule to allow the MARC service. MTA officials said they hope to offer eight round trips on Saturdays and Sundays.
Simon R. Taylor, the MTA's chief administrator, said it is too early to announce a date for the beginning of weekend service. Written material provided by the department estimated that it would start this winter.
"It will be sooner rather than later. It's a top priority for us," Taylor said. He said the weekend service would primarily run between Washington's Union Station and Baltimore's Penn Station, not to the northern end of the Penn Line at Perryville, but said some trains could go as far as Middle River.
Rafi Guroian, chairman of the MARC Riders Advisory Council, said the news was "fantastic."
"This is an enhancement to the MARC service we've been waiting for," he said.
Guroian said many MARC commuters sometimes have to work on weekends, and that Saturday and Sunday service will make the commuter trains that much more attractive.
Currently, a round-trip weekend ticket from Penn Station to Union Station costs a minimum of $32 on Amtrak. The same trip on MARC on a weekday costs $14, not counting discounts for monthly passes. A one-way Amtrak ticket from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Washington costs $15; the MARC fare is $6.
"It's a major boost for BWI," Guroian said.
In addition to weekend Penn Line service, the MTA also announced plans to add two runs each weekday to its Camden Line service.
Owens said monthly passes will be valid on weekend trains once that service starts. He said that under the transportation bill, MTA fares will rise by $1 per trip in July 2014.
In addition to the new funding for MARC, the MTA announced that $450 million of the spending announced Thursday would go toward completing the design of three high-priority transit expansion projects. The Red Line will get $170 million, while the proposed Purple Line between New Carrollton and Bethesda will receive $280 million. Another $100 million will go toward a transit line in Montgomery County's congested Interstate 270 corridor.
Mobley said the new design money would not speed the projects but would allow the MTA to keep moving forward on them. He said the state still hopes to start building the Red and Purple lines in 2015 and to complete them in 2020, but the projects still must compete for federal construction dollars.
The highway spending announced Thursday includes some long-delayed safety and expansion projects across the state.
The big items in the Baltimore region are $60 million to rebuild the Leeds Avenue interchange with the Beltway in Baltimore County, $44 million for intersection improvements around Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, and $49 million for widening northbound U.S. 29 in Howard County between Seneca Drive and Route 175 to three lanes.
The U.S. 29 project was a top priority of Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, one of the top local elected officials who lined up in support of O'Malley's transportation bill.
"As anyone who has sat in traffic there knows, removing this bottleneck will allow parents to get to their kids' schools and games quicker, get home to their families sooner and generally make life easier for so many of us," he said.
Key bills signed Thursday
Gov. Martin O'Malley signed more than 200 bills into law Thursday, including these:
Gun safety: Bans sale of guns classified as assault weapons. Bans sale of magazines with more than a 10-bullet capacity. Imposes new licensing and training requirements on purchasers of handguns. Also includes provisions intended to keep guns from people considered dangerously mentally ill.
Transportation funds: Raises taxes on gasoline by estimated 13-20 cents a gallon by 2016. Requires increase in MTA bus, subway and light rail fares.
Baltimore schools: Authorizes Maryland Stadium Authority to issue $1 billion in bonds to launch six-year program to rebuild Baltimore school buildings.
Cellphones: Allows police to pull over motorists for using hand-held wireless devices while driving even if no other offense is being committed.
Human trafficking: One bill allows seizure and forfeiture of property used in human trafficking. Another prohibits ignorance of age of victim as a defense.
Pet population control: Establishes a spay/neuter fund for sterilization of pets to be financed with a fee on commercial pet food.
--Erin Cox ___