With costs growing but overall ridership stagnant, the Mass Transit Administration is anticipating a 12 percent increase in the fares for bus, light rail and Metro service this fall to prevent a looming $7.5 million budget deficit.
State officials have cautioned that the fare increase is not a certainty, and a decision won't be made whether to impose it until July or August. But unless cost-cutting efforts are highly successful or significantly more people start riding transit, the fare increase appears inevitable.
The MTA, which operates under a mandate that half its annual operating costs be recovered from fares, would likely have to raise the base bus, subway and light rail fare from $1.25 to $1.40 to meet the $82 million revenue target in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
"It appears a fare adjustment may be necessary this fall to ensure that we recover 50 percent from our fare box," said John A. Agro Jr., the MTA's administrator.
The agency last increased fares in January 1993, when the base fare rose from $1.10 to $1.25. The base fare has generally grown 10 cents to 15 cents every two to three years since 1980.
Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) customers may also feel the pinch this fall. While MARC fares are not tied to the other modes of transit, Mr. Agro said rising commuter rail costs may also force a MARC fare increase this fall.
MARC fares were last raised in September 1993 by a hefty 19 percent. It was the first increase in five years and its size caused an outcry from riders. Mr. Agro said a smaller fare increase this fall would avoid a much larger one later.
The size of the possible MARC increase is not known.
MTA officials blamed the possible bus, light rail and Metro fare increase on rising costs and the failure of the bus and Metro systems to attract new riders. But an analysis of the MTA's operating budget reveals that the expenses associated with light rail and Metro are driving much of the shortfall.
For the first time since it opened three years ago, the 22.5-mile Central Light Rail Line's costs are being factored into the 50 percent formula. When considered in isolation, light rail only recovers about 40 percent of its cost from fares.
Metro is worse. The 14-mile subway line has an estimated 35 percent cost-recovery record. By contrast, buses make about 53 percent of cost from fares.
MTA officials bristle at the notion that buses are underwriting rail operations. For one thing, they point out, how much each system earns in fares is not precisely known.
Monthly bus passes, for instance, are good on light rail. How many light rail riders bypass the ticket machine and use a pass can only be guessed because no one examines each rider's fare payment.
Also, access to Metro and light rail is one of the reasons buses attract some riders. The interconnection is a selling feature that doesn't show up in the numbers.
"It's fair to say in the Baltimore area that the bus system has made a contribution to fare box recovery for the rail system," Mr. Agro said. "The two are integrated and support one another."
MTA buses provide 270,000 rides per day. Light rail handles about 20,000 passengers; Metro, 40,000; and MARC, 20,000. Bus and Metro ridership has shrunk in recent years, although the loss has stabilized this past year. MARC and light rail have grown.
Any fare increase is almost certain to cause a further drop in ridership -- perhaps as much as 3 percent, officials concede. Yet cost-cutting will also be a difficult solution. To meet the 50 percent formula, the MTA would have to slash $15 million from its $164 million operating budget. In addition, budget cutters face an imposing obstacle in transit union contracts. Labor costs represent three-quarters of the MTA budget, and unlike other agencies, transit unions are given collective bargaining and binding arbitration rights by state law.
Between 1990 and 1993, most MTA workers received annual 3 percent cost-of-living adjustments while other state employees went without raises.
MARC is also facing a sensitive time. The agency is negotiating new service agreements with its carriers, Amtrak and CSX Transportation, both of which are demanding greater compensation from the state.
Even if the MTA goes with a 12 percent fare increase, it may not be imposed solely on the base fare.
Officials could lessen the various discounts given students, senior citizens and frequent riders. The MTA's closest transit neighbor, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, has proposed increasing its base Metrobus and Metrorail fares by 10 cents.
If approved, the WMATA fare increase would go into effect in June.