The transit dilemma

April 26, 1995

Public transit officials are bedeviled by their own Catch 22. Costs inevitably rise, and they are required to meet half their operating expenses from fares. But if they raise fares, they lose riders and thus some of the increased income. Not to mention the fact they would be serving fewer people, which is contrary to their mandate. If they fail to cover half their costs, they are violating legislative instructions, with consequences at budget time. They're damned if they do, damned if they don't.

Peter Jensen, The Evening Sun's specialist in transit news, reports that the Mass Transit Administration faces the need to raise fares a substantial 12 percent later this year. Part of the problem is one of bookkeeping: the new Central Light Rail system's revenues count toward the transit system's 50 percent target this year for the first time. Assuming it continues to meet projected ridership goals, as it has thus far, the light rail will contribute its share to the pool in a few years. But that time hasn't come yet. Buses, declining in usage since light rail opened three years ago, still earn more than half their expenses in fares. The problem is Metro.

Baltimore's heavy rail system was designed 30 years ago to be the first leg of a true rapid transit system. But the first leg is all we have, and all we are likely ever to get. It is a great convenience for people who live in the northwest and work downtown, or, in the near future, if they work at Johns Hopkins Hospital. But although bus lines feed it passengers who used to ride on surface transport all the way, Metro doesn't come close to paying its share of the costs. Nor is it likely to do so in the foreseeable future.

Does that mean Metro should be shut down? No, not in view of the huge investment. As road congestion increases and internal combustion engines continue fouling the air, Metro could yet prove a blessing. And it is typical of urban mass transit systems that one component lags behind the others. In Washington the subway makes up for the buses.

MTA officials don't have much scope for cutting costs. Wages account for three fourths of their budget. MTA workers are mostly represented by labor unions that have bargaining muscle denied to representatives of other state employees. In evaluating the cost of a mass transit system, the consequences of not having one must be weighed in the balance. Without light rail and Metro, Baltimore's streets would be hopelessly gridlocked at rush hour. The air we breathe would be foul -- toxic to some residents. Does Baltimore's mass transit system cost the taxpayer too much? Not nearly as much the cost of not having one.

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