By any gauge, the state's MARC commuter rail service is a star performer. In the past five years, while fares have held steady, ridership has exploded by more than 110 percent. Station parking lots are filled most days and rush-hour trains are often standing-room-only affairs by the time they reach Washington.
But success sometimes brings with it unwanted side-effects. Higher operating expenses and a determination not to increase fares while ridership was growing have lowered MARC's farebox recovery to below the 50 percent level -- the point at which state law requires that MARC ticket prices be raised. The result: fare increases ranging from 17 percent to 25 percent.
Baltimore-to-Washington occasional travelers will see daily round-trip prices rise by just 50 cents, but for monthly commuters, the increase amounts to $21. For longer commutes, the increase is even more painful: the Perryville-D.C. trip will cost $30 more each month, and the Aberdeen-D.C. trip $29. The bulk of MARC's travelers will pay between $20 and $24 more a month.
Is this fare increase fair? Mass Transit Administration officials say it is. It has been over five years since the last hike in prices, even though MARC has nearly doubled the number of daily trains, extended the line to Cecil and Harford counties and made big improvements in stations, parking and the trains themselves. When complaints rose about shoddy on-time performance last year (it plunged to an unacceptable 66 percent), the MTA added personnel to handle the problem and accelerated acquisition of new trains to replace the antiquated models subject to frequent breakdowns. On-time performance this year: 92 percent.
These MARC fare increases will clearly squeeze some commuters' budgets. It won't be popular. But MARC's average cost per revenue mile is the lowest among 12 comparable commuter train operations in the U.S. and its current average revenue per passenger mile is among the nation's lowest. Even after the Oct. 1 fare increase, MARC's prices will be less than most other commuter-rail systems. It still will be cheaper to take the train than driving and parking a car in Washington.
Commuters may have to get used to higher ticket prices. The hike contemplated by the MTA means that MARC will only recover 51 or 52 percent of its costs from the farebox. A drop in ridership or unexpected cost increases by either CSX or Conrail on their tracks could mandate another price rise. Yet riding the rails remains a bargain. The more people who avail themselves of this cost-effective service, the better the chances that additional price hikes can be delayed.