New fare system may inspire more firms to pick up the transit tab for workers


January 25, 1993

Memo to: Employers

From: The Intrepid Commuter

Re: How about kicking in for bus fare?

For nearly a decade, the federal government has provided private employers a tax break for picking up at least a portion of their employees' mass transit fares.

Advocates believe the law offers great potential for saving energy and helping the environment, particularly in cities such as Baltimore and Washington that suffer from some of the worst ground-level ozone in the country.

When employees are reimbursed for riding buses, trains, trolleys, or catching a car- or van-pool, they, too, can save on taxes. Transit benefits, like company-paid health insurance premiums, do not have to be shown as income.

Employers who encourage workers to use mass transit can benefit in two ways. They can claim a tax write-off for transit benefits of up to $60 a month per employee. And they can avoid potential costs of providing for parking.

But the response from employers has not been overwhelming. Only about 50 Baltimore area companies choose to participate, according to the Mass Transit Administration.

Agency officials estimate that only 3,000 of the 33,000 or so monthly passes they sell each month are to private firms that pass them along to workers.

One reason may be the complicated transit fare structures in Washington and Baltimore, with different passes or tokens for buses, subways and trains. Some employees may transfer between two or more systems; others may use one system and switch to another periodically.

What's the answer to this problem? Transit officials are hoping that the solution rests with two new words that are about to enter the Maryland commuter vocabulary: Metrochek and TransitPlus.

Both are transit vouchers that can be redeemed for passes on any of a variety of mass transit systems.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, operator of Metrobus and Metrorail, has begun offering Metrochek.

The MTA, the state agency that runs Baltimore's Metro, Central Light Rail Line, Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) and bus systems, is about to unveil TransitPlus.

Here's how they work: Metrochek looks like a regular Metrorail fare-card and can be purchased with a face value of up to $30 by employers.

It can be used as a fare-card, or exchanged for a credit toward monthly passes on Metrobus, MARC, Virginia Railway Express, or any qualified commuter bus or van pool.

TransitPlus looks more like an oversized check: an 8 1/2 - by 4-inch slip of paper that comes in $10 denominations. It can be used to purchase monthly MARC passes or any other prepaid fare on the other MTA systems, including the new weekly fare.

Transit officials are hoping that employers will find the vouchers easier to handle than the various forms of passes they currently juggle. Administration is minimal, and employers can be assured that the vouchers can only be used for transit fares.

Perhaps even more exciting, the two systems are the first steps toward a universal fare for mass transit in Washington and Baltimore. Commuters would need to buy only one ticket -- maybe a credit card-sized pass with a magnetic strip like Metrorail's fare-card -- that would be good on any system.

"I think from here on out, every fare change we make is working toward the goal of a fully integrated fare system," says Ronald J. Hartman, the MTA's general manager.

"Someday in the not-too-distant future, you'll be able to take one card and use it on the light rail to the MARC station, to Metrorail in Washington, and then use it on the weekend to catch a bus in Ocean City."

Keep watching this space: Metrochek and TransitPlus are scheduled to be implemented next month.

Northern Parkway can be slow going

Time flies -- unless you're stuck in a car on Northern Parkway, faithful reader Patricia Cox informs us.

The Mount Washington resident claims that the traffic signals along the east-west artery never seem to be timed correctly. As soon as she gets a green light, the next traffic signal turns red and she's stopped again. "I find it a very aggravating road to take," says Ms. Cox. "It's built as a thoroughfare, and it does the opposite. It's no wonder people run red lights."

City officials agree that Northern Parkway is a problem, and Ms. Cox's inquiry has motivated them to take another look at the signals.

But there may not be too much they can accomplish in the short term. Here's why.

As we've discussed previously in this column, many of the city's traffic lights are controlled by a central computer in order to coordinate their timing. In traffic circles, that's called making the signals "progressive."

Unfortunately, most of Northern Parkway is not on the system. The signals are so far apart that the cost of stringing cable between them is prohibitive, says James W. Causey, Baltimore's traffic chief. "Down the road, we're looking at some modern technologies that might be able to do the job affordably," he says.

One very promising and low-cost technology is a signal system that uses a highly accurate clock. Signals can be set to change at a precise time that is in sequence with other lights along the thoroughfare.

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