Thursday, August 27, 2009

Interview: Rafi on the future of MARC (Part 2)

Rafi Guroian loves trains. His Facebook profile picture (shown above) demonstrates the pure joy he often feels when riding the rails. His blog is dedicated to the subject and he works for Amtrak. He is also the chair of the MARC Riders Advisory Council (MRAC), an independent organization that acts as a liaison between commuters and the MTA.

Earlier this month I met Rafi at Union Station, where we sat down to talk about trains, particularly the MARC system. I’ll be posting sections of our interview over the next week on Stuck on MARC.

Rafi Guroian interview, Part II: A voice for commuters of the future

As chair of MRAC since this spring, you’ve been working to give the council more direction so that members can both learn from the MTA about the commuter system, but also make the relationship more of a two-way street so that riders’ views are represented. How’s that process going?
A: I think more and more we’re finding that as a council we’re going to have to straddle the line between real advocacy – transportation advocacy- and also a little bit of lobbying to essentially represent the needs of the perspective MARC constituents.

Q: Lobbying Maryland politicians?
A: Yep, working with Maryland politicians mainly and also lobbying on behalf of the constituents to the politicians and to the MTA and consequently to the governor for added service. Right now the Maryland 35-year rail plan is stalled and even when it wasn’t stalled it was not as ambitious as a lot of people on the council thought it should have been. When you compare it to what’s going on in the rest of the country in rail expansion, it was almost a little embarrassing that we were only talking about extensions, a few miles, and we weren’t talking about any new lines at all. I guess we’re trying to make sure that potential MARC riders of the future, on lines that don’t exist, are represented. Because otherwise there’s no voice for them.

Back to your mission of providing the council with a forward looking mission, I understand that one of your approaches is to look at new housing developments to gauge how you could connect emerging communities with potential future rail lines?
A: I did my own little study [and] came up with essentially a best case scenario for 35 years from now what Maryland could have if Maryland were to adopt a very pro-rail strategy like you see in Illinois or Missouri or California or Virginia for that matter.

Q: I lost my $175 monthly MARC ticket a few months ago and I was enraged when I found out that it’s non-refundable. Has the council brought up this issue with MTA?
A: We as a council have to pick our fights. We’re pushing harder for what we think is the future of ticketing and that’s essentially a proof of payment system similar to the SmarTrip you use on the Metro. We would like to see the state of Maryland move to that. This is a major investment in infrastructure because you have different stations in different areas of the state with completely different scenarios where every station would be a customization job and it’s very, very cost intensive to do that. But it’s been done. It’s been done in California. The Caltrain uses it and it’s been very effective.

Q: I read that the stimulus funding for MARC will go toward a number of surface improvements like replacing the PA system, adding LED lighting, etc. Is anything in the works?
A: Most of it’s going to station improvements. And it’s stuff that you’ll notice, but it’s not huge. No new structures or anything. You’re looking at repairing platforms and repairing lighting, putting in a better messaging system. It’s not anything on the scale of brand new trains coming on line or anything like that.

Q: When I was listening to Obama and Biden tout the high speed rail portion of stimulus money I wondered why they aren’t supporting commuter rails since it’s a very middle class initiative and enjoys increasing ridership.
A: You’ll have to ask them, but I can tell you that any money that goes to high speed rail is almost certainly going to benefit commuter rail that exists or may exist because it’s going to piggyback on that infrastructure. I think your money is better spent on inner city passenger rail improvements, because not only will you cover Amtrak services, but any commuter services that exist are going to be able to run at faster speed. If they don’t exist the environment may be created where they’re realistic where they weren’t before.

Q: So you’re optimistic about a potential piggyback?
A: Yeah. My worry is there’s not enough money. It’s like throwing a little piece of meat into a piranha tank and everybody wants it.

...Tomorrow I’ll post the section of our interview where Rafi talks about his views on Gov. O'Malley's handling of the MTA and what may happen if you take a regular Brunswick rider’s seat.

*Interview conducted and edited by Julia Marsh for Stuck on MARC.

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