Mass Transit's Dilemma: Price and Service


August 01, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Even when state mass transit officials think they are winning, they end up losing. For all their efforts to give more service and more travel options to metropolitan passengers, there is a price to be paid. And that price keeps rising.

Such is the dilemma confronting mass-transit specialists. It is a capital-intensive business. It takes hundreds of millions of dollars to build transit lines and tens of millions more to keep them operating. Taxpayers must subsidize the riders. And no one appreciates what it would be like if all these rapid-rail services weren't there.

Take the light-rail line running north-south through metropolitan Baltimore.

It keeps adding riders as the line expands (best guess: 13,000 passengers a day, up from 8,200 in January) but the line has major flaws that either can't be corrected (the line doesn't traverse many high-density communities) or would require millions to remedy (the northern stops are woefully short of parking).

Or take the Baltimore and Washington heavy-rail Metros.

The D.C. area's massive subway system is running higher and higher deficits every year. There's no end in sight.

And in Baltimore, the Metro's single line from Owings Mills to LTC Charles Center has lost ridership during the recession (it carries 45,000 passengers daily) even as the extension to Johns Hopkins Hospital continues running over budget.

And, finally, take the Maryland Railroad Commuter system, the state's MARC service, with rail connections between Baltimore and Washington as well as from northern Montgomery County (and even West Virginia's eastern panhandle) to D.C. and from Baltimore's northeastern suburbs in Harford and Cecil counties to Charm City and D.C.

You'd think all would be sunshine, what with a doubling of MARC passengers in just five years (from 8,700 to 18,700). Instead, there is trepidation as MARC faces commuter displeasure over fare increases.

Mass Transit Administration officials can't even enjoy their success in turning MARC around. A state law requires that 50 percent of rail commuter costs come out of the fare box. Even with all the new riders, MARC's expenses keep rising -- charges from CSX and Amtrak, which own the tracks, are up and more staff was added to ensure the trains arrive on time.

So when MARC fare box receipts dropped to 46 percent of operating costs last fiscal year, the MTA had no choice: It will raise ticket prices Oct. 1, though it could prove counter-productive.

MTA officials are justifiably proud of what they've accomplished with MARC. Expenses have been kept extraordinarily low. Its average operating cost per mile is lower than Boston's, New Jersey's, Philadelphia's, Long Island's and Miami's commuter train operations, half as much as New York's, San Francisco's and Chicago's and three times as efficient as Connecticut's.

At the same time, prices are among the cheapest of major commuter train systems, and will remain so even after the fare hikes.

Yet commuters will be steaming over the $15 monthly increase from the close-in Washington stations, the $21 increase from Baltimore and the $30 increase from Perryville to Washington. That's a considerable hit for some commuters.

While a number of regular riders may desert MARC, that could prove temporary: It is a maddeningly gridlocked drive to D.C., and parking in Washington is incredibly expensive. Rail-riding remains a bargain.

Over the past decade, the state has done a good job creating its own commuter-rail line, acquiring decent rolling stock, getting the trains to run on time and spiffing up stations and constructing parking lots.

A new leg to Frederick is in the planning stages and should boost ridership along the Brunswick line later this decade. More immediate gains could occur along the Perryville-Aberdeen-Edgewood-Martin Airport route to Baltimore and D.C.

The problem is that MARC ridership is directly related to parking availability. The 11,000 current car spaces aren't enough. At many stations, you can't find a slot (the system-wide average is 80 percent of capacity). But adding new slots costs time and money. The good news is that the demand is there; the bad news is that taxpayers will have to shell out $23 million over the next six years to accommodate that demand for 5,000 more parking spaces.

Critics in the legislature love to scream about all the money being poured into mass transit -- though they never mention the considerably larger sums poured into concrete highways that need constant and expensive repairs and widenings.

They insist that rail riders pay half the operating costs -- though there is no similar demand placed on car drivers.

And they conveniently ignore the heavy price we pay for too many trucks and cars on these highways in the form of pollution and environmental problems; they just as conveniently ignore the environmental benefits of low-polluting rail transportation.

Yes, mass transit remains an expensive proposition. But the positives far outweigh the negatives -- even if the political demagogues try to persuade us otherwise.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics and government appears here each week.

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