Light rail to Southern Maryland? That ‘choo-choo train will be rolling soon’

A ceremonial check for $5 million in federal funding was given to Charles County for the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit Project in La Plata, Maryland. (WTOP/John Domen)

Southern Maryland is no longer the sleepy, sparsely populated region it used to be, and that’s why local, state and federal lawmakers gathered in La Plata to tout millions to get the future Southern Maryland Rapid Transit Project on track and moving.

“That choo-choo train will be rolling soon,” said state Sen. Arthur Ellis, who has made the project a priority since arriving in Annapolis in 2019.

The light rail system would run between White Plains and the Branch Avenue Metro, making 13 stops total, five in Charles County, the other eight in Prince George’s County, carrying an estimated 24,000 to 28,000 people every day.

“The intersection at 301 and 5 is the worst,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a St. Mary’s County resident, who said once he hits Charles County, “bam, we stop.”

A map of the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit Project path. (WTOP/John Domen)

Hoyer and Sen. Ben Cardin were on hand with a ceremonial check for $5 million in federal funding that will help cover some of the costs to get this light rail project moving.

Lawmakers in Annapolis made sure the state would match every federal dollar in this phase.

“It’s more than a dream,” Ellis said. “It’s not a dream, it’s not talk, it’s happening, baby. It’s happening.”

Ellis said studies conducted by the state have shown for years that a project like this is needed. Money being invested will go toward “engineering the system, designing it, and then get what we call a record of decision,” which determines if construction of the project is eligible for federal funding.

“This is the essential step,” Ellis said. “We’re looking forward to the construction phase happening in a few years.”

He said state transportation leaders have already operated with this project in the back of their minds.

Ellis said the overpasses at the intersection of Routes 5 and 301, “a light rail system was designed into that Route 5 corridor.”

Once the light rail trains start running parallel to Route 301, he said they would run along CSX tracks used by trains carrying coal from West Virginia to a decommissioned power plant.

“They’re good tracks,” Ellis said.

A map of the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit Project path. (WTOP/John Domen)

While those at the news conference touted the economic development that would happen around the 13 different stops — with transit-oriented development still a big deal — it was the quality of life issues that got talked about the most.

“People aren’t going to waste all their time in congestion,” Cardin said.

“There were mothers and fathers and employees and employers who would spend hours and hours and hours a day sitting in traffic,” Maryland state Senate President Bill Ferguson said.

“Those were minutes that could be spent at kids’ baseball games. Could be spent dreaming up the next tech company. When we talk about the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit Line, we’re not just talking about transportation,” he said. “What we’re talking about is improving human experience, giving people their time back so that they can live the life that they deserve.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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