Howard County and the City of Laurel have planned competing transit-oriented development (TOD) projects within walking distance of each other. However, the jurisdictions are on the same track in their assessment of future mass transit needs.
At a December ceremony in Ellicott City, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and Laurel City Council President Ed Ricks signed a joint letter asking CSX to allow a full stop at Howard County’s proposed Laurel Park TOD and to maintain the existing full stop at the Laurel MARC station.
Currently, Laurel Park operates as a flag stop, with infrequent usage and no amenities, apart from a shabby passenger platform. It follows that ridership at this stop will spike once the mixed-use Laurel Park TOD comes on line.
Currently in the review process, the project includes 1,000 residential units and 700,000 square feet of retail, commercial and office space.
Although Howard County’s request to upgrade the flag stop to a full stop initially led the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) to consider shuttering the Laurel MARC station, it now appears that the state is weighing other options. Among them, operating two full stops, or possibly alternating stops at each site and using bus shuttles to ferry inconvenienced commuters back to their point of origin.
“It’s difficult when you have large developments on the edge of a jurisdiction,” Kittleman said at the signing. “[MDOT] has been very interested in the impact across jurisdictional lines. We’ve had those discussions. Hopefully, this joint agreement will lead us to a more fruitful solution.”
The City of Laurel has more than 3,000 housing units on the drawing board or under construction, including Hawthorne Place, with 1,006 residential units and 150,000 square feet of office and retail space.
The city’s proposed MARC station TOD includes a mix of 310 residential units, 10,000 square feet of retail, office and flex space, and a commuter parking garage.
“We need to keep things green, and the only way to do that is by keeping cars off the road,” Ricks said. “This is why we have to fight, and why we have to come together as communities and community leaders, to make it happen.”
MDOT’s decision would be relatively straightforward if Laurel and Howard County were the only parties with a stake in the outcome. However, there’s also the viewpoint of CSX, which owns the rail line and has freight scheduling needs to consider. In a release provided to The Business Monthly, CSX officials confirmed that they have been engaged in discussions on this issue with the state of Maryland.
“[W]e are happy to continue the dialogue with our state and county partners to develop an appropriate solution to commuters’ requirements, while also meeting the critical need to maintain the efficient flow of freight traffic across Maryland,” the CSX officials wrote. “Additional conversations are necessary before we can comment on any specific proposal.”
CSX officials did not respond to a request for more specific details regarding their position in the discussions, or the impact that an additional stop might have on the railroad’s freight scheduling requirements.
MDOT Spokesperson Teri Moss acknowledged that MDOT conducted a ridership survey at the Laurel MARC station in October. “We’re preparing to move forward to the analytical stage and will be studying the responses for the next several months,” she said, during which time discussions with all stakeholders will continue to be held.
With that activity ongoing, a decision on the fate of the historic Laurel train station might not be made until spring or later.
At a Laurel Town Hall meeting on the train station in November, however, Laurel Historical Society Member Karen Lubieniecki raised concerns about the survey, which she said included the scanning of license plates in the parking lot and should be considered flawed.
“They only surveyed 268 out of a total of about 800 [riders],” she said. “They said that 53% of the people were from Howard County. That’s a pretty high figure.”
The seeming inconsistency may stem from the survey having been conducted in the parking lot, Lubieniecki said, and not incorporating people who walked or took public transportation to the station.
Nevertheless, she said, nearly 70% of respondents said they were comfortable with the station as it is and wanted more parking, “but they did not have a burning desire to see the station moved.”
Who Has Priority?
Laurel City Councilman Mike Leszcz, who was recently appointed to the National League of Cities (NLC)’s 2016 Transportation Infrastructure & Services Committee, said federal law could potentially provide a more substantive argument for the two-stop option.
“The Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 requires freight railroads to give priority to Amtrak passenger trains during their operating windows,” he said, but whether that argument can be brought to bear on the Laurel situation isn’t clear. “It depends on how that is interpreted, and there are probably two divergent views.”
Operating as a two-line system, the Camden Line serving Laurel and Laurel Park has no third track or sidings that could allow freight trains to pass passenger trains to help both stay on schedule.
Another scheduling complication, Ricks said, is that passenger trains are held to higher safety standards than freight trains and must limit their speed on hot days when rails become more hazardous to use.
“There is an absolute demand by the population for increased opportunities to [commute by] train,” Ricks said. “It would be nice if CSX could work with the state of Maryland to help develop that opportunity.”
The Maryland Transit Administration has been adding double-decker cars to its passenger trains “as fast as they can,” he said, “but eventually, they’re all going to be optimized and the only solution is going to be more service, not less.”