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Rail plan cautiously considered by county

(Dec. 4, 2014) Although it was a unanimously popular project with the previous Worcester County Commissioners, the excursion railroad that would run between Berlin and Snow Hill faces some uncertainty with this week’s installation of four new commissioners.
Warren, Pa., firm Stone Consulting presented a phase one feasibility study to the previous commissioners in November, and Worcester County Economic Development Director Bill Badger was directed to negotiate costs for a phase two study.
Badger said interest in the train began when leadership from Pennsylvania-based Strasburg Railroad visited Berlin last year.
“They were the catalyst for this whole thing,” he said “When Strasburg came down for the Christmas holidays and stayed at the Atlantic Hotel, they said, ‘I see the potential here.’”
Following the initial spark, a delegation of Worcester County officials, including Badger, traveled to the Strasburg headquarters to gather information. Badger said meetings went well and that the company was “the gold standard,” but that Strasburg would not necessarily be the eventual operator if plans move forward.
The prospective role of the excursion train, rather than act as transportation, would essentially be a tourist attraction, potentially including meals or popular tie-ins like Thomas the Tank Engine or the Polar Express.
Phase one touted an excursion train’s ability to create revenue during the shoulder season, a major need for a Worcester County economy largely fueled by beach tourism.
The study examined a route from Berlin to Snow Hill, potentially stopping at Newark. The evaluation’s cost totaled just over $20,000 and was split by Worcester County, Berlin, Snow Hill and the Maryland-Delaware Railroad Co.
Badger is fielding requests for proposals on phase two and estimated the cost would total between $15,000 and $20,000. He expects to brief the commissioners on Dec. 16.
“When we started this, I was warned this is a long-term process to consider all the factors and what’s involved,” Badger said. “We had to make sure there was a market opportunity here and that you can’t forget that someone has to take a risk and make money doing this. No one is going to do it just because it’s a great idea, so that’s what phase one validated, that there is an opportunity to operate an excursion train here.
“Now the harder questions come: the business plan, what’s the economic impact, jobs, capital investment,” Badger continued. “I’m optimistic. I was told a bad Polar Express event can draw 18,000-20,000 people, so if you do it well, I think Strasburg has a record of 64,000 people that did a Polar Express event. There is opportunity here, no question.”
Although Berlin, Snow Hill and the county are funding the feasibility studies, Badger said private investors would take over construction and operation, meaning the public financial obligation could end following phase two.
The three new Republicans commissioners, Joe Mitrecic, Ted Elder and Chip Bertino, expressed cautious optimism on the project. Diana Purnell, the lone Democrat commissioner, was not available for comment.
Mitrecic said he would consider voting for phase two – if the price was right.
“If it’s an economic generator and it could be a win-win, certainly it’s worth a look,” he said. “They do the Polar Express up in Delaware on a train that doesn’t move and have great success with it. Certainly it’s something to look at. I think it would be ridiculous not to spend the little bit of money they want for phase two – that means we would have wasted the money for phase one automatically.”
Mitrecic, who represents Ocean City in District 7, said his primary concern was where the train would originate.
“I don’t think that it can be successful and start in Snow Hill, but I could be wrong,” he said. “I think it has to start in the north end of the county and go south as opposed to starting in the south and going north. When you start to get down to the Snow Hill area, you get too far away from the masses, so to speak. If it has to go to Snow Hill up, I don’t foresee it being a winner.”
Elder said he studied the phase one study and found “some positive merits.”
“Right now, I’m still gathering information and trying to poll the other members of the county commissioners and see what their thoughts are before I make my mind up on anything,” he said. “It would be nice if we could get some business people who are willing to come and put some investment into it. I don’t foresee us buying a train. I don’t think we should be in the business of being in business, especially with taxpayer money.”
The upside for Elder, who represents the western part of Worcester County in District 4, is the potential for job creation.
“If it was successful, it could generate some revenue and some jobs, which is the main thing we need in the county,” he said. “I’ve got a guardedly optimistic view. I don’t think [$5,000] is a major investment, but I want to make sure that the county doesn’t step into something where they’re going to be investing a lot of money into it.”
Bertino, who represents District 5 in Ocean Pines, said he was waiting to see what is included in the second study.
“I would need to reserve judgment before I made a decision,” he said. “The idea is a very interesting idea for this area. If it can be done and done well, I think it’s only going to add to the community, but like so many other things, when you get into details of what it’s going to cost and who would be responsible for the cost, that’s where the rubber hits the road. But I’m intrigued by the idea without a doubt.”
If the commissioners vote to chip in for the second study, Badger said a request for qualifications for a train company would not be far behind.
“That’s what I envision is going to happen now, if the commissioners agree,” he said. “Once you figure out what the costs were and the costs were manageable, then we could find money, then we would do an RFQ for an operator.”
If the commissioners do not approve the phase two study, an outside funding source could step in to save the project.
“I work for the commissioners, so if they choose not to provide funds for phase two, then someone else like the railroad would have to step up and take over the reins of the leadership,” Badger said.
“They would have to decide whether the railroad, for example, would seek money from the towns to proceed with phase two, or find an operator that was very interested.”