Commuters assail plan to boost MARC fares

September 09, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

BELTSVILLE -- A proposed 19 percent average increase in commuter train fares is too much too soon and will cost the Maryland Rail Commuter system customers, some irate MARC riders warned state officials last night.

The fare increase, scheduled to take effect Oct. 1, would raise the cost of a one-way ticket 25 cents and reduce the discount for holders of monthly and weekly passes.

Commuters warned representatives of the Mass Transit Administration that service on the MARC system continues to be poor and that a fare increase would reduce ridership.

MARC provides service for about 18,500 people each weekday.

"It's not the $17 a month this is going to cost me that's a problem," said Lt. Col. Richard Barnes of Columbia. "It's the suddenness. It's too much at one time."

Colonel Barnes was one of about 50 people who attended a public hearing on the fares at High Point High School here. It was the first of five scheduled MTA hearings.

None of them was happy with the proposal.

Commuters vented their frustration with the system, which has more than doubled in passenger volume since its last rate increase in 1988.

They complained about continued overcrowding during rush hours, tardy trains, broken air conditioners and limited parking at many MARC stations.

"We're at the mercy of a monopoly," said Susan B. Murphy of Catonsville. "If they keep raising fares, who's going to ride the MARC train?"

MTA officials said the increase is necessary because of a state law that requires them to meet half of their operating costs from fares.

For the first time, the system has failed to meet that goal, recovering 46 percent in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

MARC contracts with Amtrak and CSX Transportation Inc. to run its trains.

The expansion of the MARC system, the greater volume of customers and rising costs are to blame for the budget dilemma, state officials said.

MTA Deputy Administrator James F. Buckley said he was sympathetic with the riders but that the money to run MARC has to come from somewhere.

The rate increase can't be phased in gradually or the MTA will fail to meet its revenue goal this year, he said.

"We can tinker with it, but we need the whole increase at once," Mr. Buckley said. "We made a decision last spring that the quality of the service wasn't there to justify a rate increase [at that time]. We can't do that again."

State officials have privately expressed their own frustrations with the system, particularly with the difficulty in motivating Amtrak and CSX, which are essentially sole-source contractors.

Still, MARC's rates compare favorably with those of other commuter railroads, and the on-time performance has been improving this year.

That is unlikely to appease commuters, whose fares would rise up to 22 percent. A monthly pass from Camden Station in Baltimore to Union Station in Washington, for instance, would increase $21, from $110 to $131.

"We don't get the service we deserve," said Marilyn Watson of Laurel. "Who among us has received a 19 percent pay raise?"

The four other MTA public hearings are set for:

* Today, 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Aberdeen commissioners' meeting room, 3 W. Bel Air Ave. at U.S. 40 in Aberdeen.

* Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., first floor of Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Training Center, 777 N. Capital St. N.E., Washington.

* Monday, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Executive Office Building lobby level auditorium, 101 Monroe St., Rockville.

* Tuesday, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., University of Baltimore Langsdale Auditorium, Oliver Street and Maryland Avenue, Baltimore.

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