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Can we build up around MARC stations?

It's not surprising that corporate offices and sprawling suburbs are consuming the green fields between DC's and Baltimore's beltways. What is surprising is there's no real alternative: no urban places are being built at all of the MARC stations in the same corridor.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

My wife and I live in Baltimore. Each morning, we splash cold water on our faces before heading to Penn Station in the dark. There, I drop my wife to catch the 5:50 MARC train to Union Station, where she will then transfer to the Metro and arrive at work by 7:30. This is a better choice than driving through morning and evening rush hour in two cities, which she has tried before.

I work in Baltimore, but have meetings in the suburbs between there and DC. By being in the middle, families and businesses can access the employment, cultural, airport, and other benefits of both regions. But the traffic is terrible, and there is pressure to use taxpayer dollars to widen roads or create new ones, like the Intercounty Connector.

The status quo development between Baltimore and DC is comprised of both commercial and residential sprawl, some of which is very close to MARC stations. But the way it's designed and sited makes it inaccessible to train passengers.

The US Green Building Council (USGBC) and its LEED rating system need to play a role. USGBC should not be giving isolated, land-gobbling sprawl producers green credentials for energy efficiency when these same buildings require inefficient commuting.

By contrast, all seven Penn Line stations, and most of the Camden Line stations between Baltimore and DC lie in a desert of surface parking lots (there's actually a garage at BWI Airport station). It's difficult to even get a cup of coffee at most of these outposts. But the train service offered there can deliver a passenger to the center of Washington or Baltimore roughly as fast and as comfortably as the Metro or a car.

Can we encourage transit-oriented development around MARC stations, the way we have around places like Arlington, Rockville, Bethesda, and Silver Spring, which have grown up around Metro stations? Kaid Benfield has covered Arlington's success in revitalizing neighborhoods without increasing traffic. And Chris Leinberger has described the growth of what he calls "WalkUP" development that is becoming so prevalent in the DC area.

While I advocate for infill development inside the beltways, there's still demand for development in between. It is time to start urban, mixed-use development along the MARC Penn and Camden lines.

The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) proclaims they are open for business partnerships at MARC stations, and have a transit-oriented development (TOD) underway at Odenton. Private sector developers have made lots of money building urban neighborhoods at Metro stations, particularly in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. There is potential for similar opportunity adjacent to MARC stations.

So why has scattered growth continued between Baltimore and DC while MARC stations remain constellations of barren surface parking? I speculate the issue is the cost of structured parking, which frees up room for urban development. With cheap available greenfields to build lots on, why spend the money?

The frequency of MARC service also affects the prospects for development around stations. Headways on the Penn Line are close to an hour outside of rush hour, while the Camden Line is even less frequent, and offers no trains in the middle of the day or on weekends.

More frequent MARC trains help overcome one advantage the Metro has over Maryland's commuter lines. Increased service, like weekend service on the Penn Line that started this December, makes TOD more viable because the people who live and work there can rely on it.

There are an increasingly large number of people who travel between Baltimore and Washington that may prefer a hassle-free train ride to a drive in traffic. Especially if there's a cosmopolitan urban environment where they get on and off the train. There is a premium for this in Bethesda and Arlington, and there could be at MARC stations as well.

To get on a roll at MARC stations, the public sector may have to help build and finance structured parking to open up land adjacent to stations for development. Stu Sirota, principal of TND Planning Group, says there needs to be an overarching vision coupled with marketing. "A real regional planning effort or charrette will show how all these station areas could become cool transit villages (or bigger)," he says, "and what an incredible impact that could have on the Baltimore-Washington corridor."

Once there are a few hot spots along the Penn and Camden lines, the areas around MARC stations will become coveted real estate. It is time to get started.

Jeff La Noue is a project and sustainability planner in Baltimore. He has an Economics degree from St. Mary's College of Maryland and a Masters in Community Planning from the University of Maryland-College Park. Posts are his own viewpoint and do not necessarily reflect his employer. Jeff also runs his own urbanist blog, Comeback City


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Here here! I did the Baltimore to DC commute primarily by Marc for several months and my partner did it for a year and a half, and we know a few other split-city couples. We might still live in Baltimore if the trains ran more frequently/reliably on both lines. Several times family outside the area asked if we couldn't just live in between the two - but as you point out, there are few good options to do so and be able to walk to the train/other amenities as we did in Baltimore.

by Rae on Dec 11, 2013 1:57 pm • linkreport

Can we build up around MARC stations?

Yes we can.

Problem is that before MARC (and VRE) stations become viable TOD centers, MARC (and VRE) service needs to become more than just a commuter service at highly irregular intervals.

by Jasper on Dec 11, 2013 1:57 pm • linkreport

Long overdue in fact. I've looked several times at moving to an area near a MARC station, but being unable to buy, there are little to no rental options.

by Redline SOS on Dec 11, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

pretty good article, the governor and state planning agency have said they wanted to spur more transit oriented development in bal-wash corridor. Why aren't there any incentives or credits for building parking garages like the author suggest? Montgomery county is on the forefront for urban development why haven't ann arundel, Balt, & Howard counties consulted them for help to speed up the process and preserve open land.

The area between baltimore & wash is one of the if not largest cyber security hotbeds in the country so the demographics are definitely there for something like Rockville town center or Reston near a Marc station. The Dulles corridor is already building a new metro line and building mixed use development, why is it taking the Balt -wash corridor so long?

by mike on Dec 11, 2013 2:07 pm • linkreport

You would need upgraded service. 20 minute headways on the Penn Line that go well into the night and 40 minute headways on the Camden.

You really should have a transfer at Haethorpe/St Denis so people can hop from one MARC line to the other without going all the way to Union Station.

The ticketing needs to change, right now the Camden line only checks tickets southbound once when they approach greenbelt.

by Richard on Dec 11, 2013 2:23 pm • linkreport

Stuff is being built[near the muirkirk Marc station themarkatbrickyard], maybe not to your liking or density, but it's not very desirable to live in those parts, so I'd hate to have the government step in to induce demand. In addition I'd say Marc has a ways to go to be as frequent as Metro.

by Seth-Moved to DC in 2012 on Dec 11, 2013 2:28 pm • linkreport

West Baltimore is getting a big upgrade with the redline, several new developments and a new garage.

by Richard on Dec 11, 2013 2:39 pm • linkreport

I agree wholeheartedly with this notion in principle. However the one place they really have tried it, Odenton, suffers from high vacancy rates at the town center development, despite the fact that it is also very close to the huge employment center at Fort Meade.

I lived in Laurel for 9 years, and I have found the Camden Line virtually useless considering its slow route, overcrowding, lack of reverse (i.e. AM toward Baltimore, PM to DC) commuting options, lack of midday and weekend trains.

IMHO we ought to consider rapid transit from DC (extending the Green Line?) to Laurel and rapid transit (a light rail or heavy rail) from Baltimore to Laurel, as the Camden Line corridor is certainly dense enough for TOD but lacks the service to support it (see the vacant store fronts at the Riverdale station). Even the MARC expansion plan doesn't offer much more service along this corridor.

As for the Penn Line, TOD might actually overcrowd those trains. I don't have too much of a problem with that, because it will push for more service. Seabrook, Bowie State, and Halethorpe are grossly underdeveloped, but considering the lack of success at Odenton and Prince George's County's piss poor record for TOD, I don't know what value there would be in pushing plans forward without looking at the services available in those areas.

by Dave Murphy on Dec 11, 2013 2:48 pm • linkreport

I take the Camden line from Muirkirk to Baltimore and back every weekday. I'm not sure what you're talking about when you state that "the Camden line only checks tickets southbound once they approach greenbelt."

by Paul on Dec 11, 2013 2:49 pm • linkreport

In the morning from Baltimore to Union they dont check tickets until greenbelt.

by Richard on Dec 11, 2013 2:54 pm • linkreport

Its disappointing they built commercial developments on Corporate Center Dr. instead of next to the BWI parking garages.

by mcs on Dec 11, 2013 3:01 pm • linkreport

Ah OK I didn't know that. Thank you Richard.

by Paul on Dec 11, 2013 3:07 pm • linkreport

There are new walk ups in Gaithersburg. Some within 1/4 mile and another pod within 1/2 mile. Very nice product on Diamond Avenue in gaithersburg with MARC trains out the front door!

by angel on Dec 11, 2013 3:28 pm • linkreport

The area around BWI is a big opportunity for more walkable development, at least as an employment center. I think the Maryland Aivation Administration owns 3,000 - 4,000 acres of land around BWI. Office development next to the airport would not be impacted with aviation and airport noise. MARC, Amtrak, and light rail serve BWI. Finally, the airport authority could develop land around the airport to help finance maintenance and additional investment for airport needs.

by 202_cyclist on Dec 11, 2013 3:32 pm • linkreport

I think there is where MARC should go in the long term. In the shorter term I think they could look at greater bang for their buck at assessing ped/bike/transit access to the stations. Most of them are totally auto oriented and even if there is not strong developer interest in TOD models now you could maybe encourage better utilization of alternative ways to get there that might boost ridership and make the case for better service.

There are a few places like Greenbelt, New Carrollton, and BWI that seem like they should already be positioned to absorb mixed use development with the support of local government. I also agree that station amenities and siting are somewhat lacking. NJ Transit or LIRR stations often have plaza designs at their stations (obviously they had the benefit of old school transit suburbs) in the more walkable suburban areas. A lot of it ends up being a local land use issue, how is it zoned, what is the region transportation planning agenda etc. Some of it would also depend on freight use by CSX, I'm not sure how much additional capacity there is locally to absorb more passenger service. Also being sandwiched between two metro areas, complementary bus transit is not great in the area and would need to ramp up.

by BTA on Dec 11, 2013 3:53 pm • linkreport


The BWI cycle trail and the Baltimore Annapolis cycle trail are also nice.

by Richard on Dec 11, 2013 3:54 pm • linkreport

"In the morning from Baltimore to Union they dont check tickets until greenbelt.
by Richard on Dec 11, 2013 2:54 pm"

So? This is not unusual behavior on a commuter train. I grew up on Metro-North. Sometimes, a conductor will come for your ticket after your stop, but during rush hours, they make their way slowly and many tickets are not checked until the train starts into the city.

Compare this with the light rail to Baltimore -- from what I've seen, it's a rarity when they do check tickets at all. That should be addressed.

by Fischy (Ed F. on Dec 11, 2013 8:32 pm • linkreport

Moreover, having grown up on Metro-North, it is shocking to me to see the pathetic state of MARC. Creating towns like you have in Westchester County, with vibrant shopping areas and a town center around the stations would be a great thing, but the state first needs to commit to providing a better service. It's not exactly how the rail lines grew in New York -- but that was a different time and the rail lines were private ventures. Can't be done now. Today, if you want to build bedroom communities like that, you need the central rail link.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Dec 11, 2013 8:39 pm • linkreport

I grew up in the Chicago area about a three minute walk from the Glencoe train station on the Metra/Union Pacific North Line. The schedule on that line (and on most of the commuter lines in Chicago) hasn't changed in years. I think they added one train in the very early morning, but that was it. That schedule has 35 trains in each direction (with some expresses skipping stations during rush hour), hourly service off-peak, and good reverse-peak service. Interestingly, Sunday service on that line is as extensive as MARC service on Saturdays now.

I say all this because it takes a lot for real development to take place at midpoints on a route. You need a lot more than good peak service, you need frequent off-peak trains, flexible timings for commuters (basically, transit-like peak service), and clockwork efficiency. Metra rarely runs late, and usually even when it is, it's consistent about that(I used to remember that the 4:06 outbound at Indian Hill was always there at 4:09). MARC has had to fight for scraps in terms of facilities - Wedge Yard will open next year, but for years they've been forced to use the platform tracks and the West Yard (originally built to handle some odd freight for the Government Printing Office, mail, and not much else).

MARC isn't like Metra, NJTransit, Metro-North, or the other big commuter rail agencies. 47 round-trips per weekday across its three lines is the same number, coincidentally, as Chicago's *second* most-trafficked line (by trains/weekday, at least), the BNSF Railway. In terms of passengers, MARC's three lines add up to 33,000, just under the 36,000 that use Chicago's *second* busiest line (by passengers/weekday) the Metra Electric District.

What I'm saying is that yes, MARC has made progress, but just because they now have weekend service on one line, discussions about it being a driver for regional, rail-side growth are insanely premature. MARC has had to tread water and just barely get by for years, and while investment in facilities (Wedge Yard, etc.) will help, they have a long way to go before they can be considered more than just an odd alternative to automobiles for most people. That can change, but it will take decades, if not longer to develop those trends.

by Aaron Z. on Dec 11, 2013 10:21 pm • linkreport

Montgomery County has approved new development around the MARC station in Kensington.

by Woody Brosnan on Dec 12, 2013 7:06 am • linkreport

"That can change, but it will take decades, if not longer to develop those trends."

No, it can happen MUCH sooner if there is political will for it. Washington Metro was built from scratch in a few decades. Incremental changes to MARC would take much less time.

by Eric on Dec 12, 2013 8:01 am • linkreport

"No, it can happen MUCH sooner if there is political will for it. Washington Metro was built from scratch in a few decades. Incremental changes to MARC would take much less time."

This is wishful thinking and it's also comparing apples to oranges. Metro was a massive undertaking - an entire subway network built from scratch with extremely frequent service. It would similarly take billions of dollars to have even 30 minute headways along the Penn Line, let alone the Camden Line or Brunswick Line.

Even if you do have those kinds of changes, you wouldn't end up with the same development patterns. hourly or bi-hourly regional/commuter rail has limits. Generally, the most you can reliably end up with is something like Chicago's commuter rail lines - medium density retail and some business around middle of the line stations. MARC isn't going to create any Arlington corridor-like developments in the way Metro did, but you could end up with something like Highland Park, IL.

Political will is one thing, but developers, businesses, and so on are completely another. It doesn't matter how much will there is because no one is going to want to relocate a business someplace that they can only get to/from at certain times of the day.

by Aaron Z. on Dec 12, 2013 8:32 am • linkreport

Plus as much as we might wish otherwise, Baltimore and DC aren't Chicago or New York.

by BTA on Dec 12, 2013 8:56 am • linkreport

It would similarly take billions of dollars to have even 30 minute headways along the Penn Line.

Yes, but there are billions and then there are billions.

MARC's expansion plan has sketch-level cost estimates. The order of magnitude for the Penn Line is less than one phase of the Silver line.

The reason it's not wishful thinking is that a Metro expansion, like the Silver line, is an all or nothing proposition: you build it (all of it), or you don't. MARC is an existing operation; there are a host of incremental capital upgrades that will enable better service.

As for land use, I think MARC could do better than what you discuss if they hit their plan (15 minute peak headyways on the Penn Line, 30 min off-peak). Let's also not forget that Rosslyn-Ballston is successful because of Metro, yes, but also because it's right smack-dab in the core of the region. TOD helps, but real estate is still about location, location, location.

Political will is one thing, but developers, businesses, and so on are completely another. It doesn't matter how much will there is because no one is going to want to relocate a business someplace that they can only get to/from at certain times of the day.

These don't need to be major jobs centers. The Penn Line already has two big ones (DC and Baltimore) at either end. There are lots of other potential pathways to TOD success.

by Alex B. on Dec 12, 2013 8:58 am • linkreport

A major part of the plans that Ed and I have is to electrify all MARC & VRE train lines (except that lightly used spur to West Virginia - use a diesel shuttle there) and deploy EMUs scheduled for 90 mph (SEPTA Silverliner Vs top speed is 110 mph) on all lines except Penn (and some Penn EMUs).

Operationally, at Peak six to eight car EMU trains serve some time slots and loco pulled trains other time slots (EMU trains accelerate and break faster so they get the all stop locals).

Outside Peak, loco trains are parked and crews transferred to EMUs. Shorter EMU trains (as small as one car) serve mid-day and evening demand. Far fewer empty seats are moved about and passengers get much better mid-day service.

Often some train crews are paid to sit around all day rather than run empty trains outside Peak. They can be used to operate short EMU trains instead.

More frequent and faster service (outside Penn Line) will help attract TOD.

Ed Tennyson speced and ordered the first modern EMUs in North America 50 years ago, the Silverliner IIs for SEPTA. They were retired last year. He also supervised electrifying 10 miles of the Reading Railroad.

SEPTA has less than ten electric locomotives and hundreds of EMUs.

by Alan Drake on Dec 12, 2013 9:06 am • linkreport

Amtrak used to take MARC monthly passes. This greatly enhanced the off-peak service frequency from BWI and New Carrolton. Maryland had to pay for this, but I suspect the charge was reasonable.

An even more aggressive option is for Maryland and Virginia to negotiate for cheaper Amtrak fares to stations also served by MARC and VRE. When Amtrak does not sell out, say a $10 Union to BWI fare and a small payment from MDOT (say $1).

by Alan Drake on Dec 12, 2013 9:35 am • linkreport

20 min headways on the penn and 40 minute headways on camden and late night trains and with an interchange at Haelthorpe would cost less than the silver line.

by Richard on Dec 12, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

Re: Alex B.

I am being a bit pessimistic about investing in MARC, but normally I'm hugely in favor of transit investment. It's not that I'm against the idea, but rather I think there's a little bit of unrealistic expectation going on when it comes to the impacts of improvements. Some specific things:

"These don't need to be major jobs centers."

They won't be. The original post we're all talking about seems to think that they could be similar to some of the development we see around Metro stations (see the 7th paragraph). I think that sort of concept might be stting the bar to an unachievable level. MARC isn't Metro, VRE isn't Metro, nor should they be. If anything, I think that part of the problem is that MARC and VRE are often compared to Metro.

The best places to develop for commuter rail are at line endpoints and at good transit spots. Compare Evanston, IL's Davis Street Metra Station to New Carrollton. Most of the newer buildings at Davis Street were built within the past 15 years, but the overall layout of streets dates to the 1800's. That's not to say that adding train frequencies and investing in the NEC is a bad thing, just that we should temper our expectations. We are unlikely to turn Odenton or Halethorpe into the next Silver Spring overnight, much less with only $2-3 billion (which is a bit of a lowball estimate by MARC since it basically ignores that Amtrak also wants to run additional service, but even $4-5 billion on DC-BAL wouldn't be a bad thing). The types of changes that the article's author seems to thing are possible could take decades to fully be realized.

by Aaron Z. on Dec 12, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

Ok, but you're talking about two separate things: The improvements to transit, and the potential for quality urban development.

You implied that even with transit improvements, you won't get R-B-like development. You implied that Metro was critical to the development of that corridor (and it was).

Here's the thing, however. You're right that New Carrolton isn't going to win awards as a great place - but that's not because of the transit. It has Metro right there.

I don't want to imply that there's no connection between quality urban development and the provision of good transit, but the two can advance independently.

Even with the service we have now, there's no reason not to develop around MARC stations. And vice versa, even with the land use we have right now, there's no reason not to continue investing in MARC service improvements.

by Alex B. on Dec 12, 2013 12:55 pm • linkreport

@Aaron Z.

Making MARC or VRE closer to Metrorail is possible take many other countries and cities in the USA.

Almost every commuter train in the world runs better than MARC & VRE do. Take trains in Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden, etc.

What needs to happen is we need new right of way where the stations are in areas that actually have lots of people which none of the Marc stations are except for Rockville, Silver Spring, Penn Station, Camden, Odenton & New Carrolton, Riverdale, College Park & Greenbelt.

We also need more connected buildings instead of separate buildings for public local transit, commuter trains, intercity rail. Alexandria/King Street, Crystal City, Silver Spring, Rockville should all be one massive building with separate tracks for each type of train. New Carrolton is ok but could be better. Union Station is good from a USA standpoint but its really just a rundown mall that happens to have a subway, and intercity rail station in it.

by kk on Dec 12, 2013 3:46 pm • linkreport

There's evidently demand for office, multifamily residential, and hotel in the corridor, if the sprawl surrounding BWI is any indication. If only the counties involved could get their acts together...

by Payton Chung on Dec 16, 2013 1:08 pm • linkreport

The market is saturated with commercial ofice space.
Developers are switching to mixed retail/residential.

by Woody Brosnan on Dec 16, 2013 2:08 pm • linkreport

Great article! The MTA is actually promoting TOD around MARC stations, they're just doing it half-heartedly and sluggishly.

They should take a page out of WMATA's book which has one of the most aggressive and successful TOD programs in the nation. Metro's JDA program is a win for everyone. Developers make money, WMATA makes money and usually gets a free parking garage, residents get more convenient transit access, and motorists get less traffic on the streets.

Along the Penn and Camden Lines there is TOD planned or under construction at:

- Odenton
- Savage
- New Carrollton (MTA/WMATA joint development)
- College Park (WMATA)
- Greenbelt (WMATA/FBI?)
- Laurel
- BWI Airport (Amtrak/MTA; new station includes hotel)
- Penn Station
- Aberdeen (Amtrak/MTA)

by King Terrapin on Dec 17, 2013 9:35 am • linkreport

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