Fewer bus riders expected at $1.35 Fare boost, route cuts part of MTA bid to avert budget deficit

January 11, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

The newly announced 10-cent bus-fare increase -- to $1.35 beginning March 10 -- and the sharp reduction in bus routes mean fewer riders will choose Baltimore mass transit, officials say.

Mass Transit Administration head John A. Agro Jr. estimates that the agency will lose about 10,600 riders, or roughly 3 percent of its clientele, as a result of the latest round of fare increases, which are intended to offset rising operating costs. The fare increase was announced Jan. 4.

Buses provide 270,000 rides per day. Light Rail and Maryland Rail Commuter service (MARC) handle about 20,000 passengers

each, and Metro about 45,000. MTA officials said that bus and Metro ridership has declined in recent years, although the loss has stabilized recently. They said Light Rail use has grown.

Despite the fare increase, MTA officials are betting that the system will get more passengers with the addition of new Light Rail and Metro lines.

"There is a strong effort to increase ridership in the urban and suburban areas," said David L. Winstead, secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation. "From a planning standpoint, we continue to expand transit to get more ridership and operate efficiently."

Mr. Winstead said that the MTA is conducting a study of local bus and rail routes to anticipate where the growth will be. Mr. Agro said that although nearly 90 percent of riders live in the city, the potential for new riders will be greatest in the counties.

Construction is under way on Light Rail extensions to Penn Station, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Hunt Valley. The $106 million, 7.5-mile project is expected to be completed by spring 1997. MTA officials predict that the ridership on Light Rail will increase by 16,000 passengers by the year 2000.

Additionally, MTA officials are studying whether to add rail service from Johns Hopkins University to White Marsh and Perry Hall, and add service to Montgomery County and west of the city along Franklin and Mulberry streets.

Also, they are looking at ways to connect Light Rail to the Metro and extend Light Rail further into Anne Arundel County.

In 1998, the MARC line will be extended by a mile in Frederick County, and MTA officials hope 1,600 more passengers will ride.

Though MTA officials seem to be looking grandly into the future, transit riders say that they should concentrate less on rail and more on city bus routes.

"The bottom line is that the Light Rail and the subway are a money drain on the system," said Tom Sunseri, chairman of the MTA citizen advisory committee, a group of 12 that monitors the transit system.

Though MTA officials blamed the budgetary shortfall on the entire system's inability to attract new riders, the operating budget shows that the expenses associated with the Light Rail and the Metro are driving much of the loss.

The 22.5-mile Light Rail line recovers only about 40 percent of its costs through the fare box. The 14-mile subway line recovers only about 35 percent of its costs from fares. But buses recover about 53 percent of costs from fares.

With costs growing but overall ridership stagnant, MTA officials raised fares to avert a $7.5 million deficit in their $164 million budget. By state law, the MTA has to cover 50 percent of operating costs through fare-box receipts.

The agency last increased fares in January 1993, when the base bus 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.

Mr. Sunseri said the MTA is making a mistake in going after suburban riders and instead should concentrate on city users. The fares "are already high enough for really rotten service," he said.

About a third of the 66 bus routes will either be eliminated or reduced Feb. 11. Also, the five-zone system will be ended. MTA officials said that the routes were changed because of low ridership and that the end of the zone system will make it easier for riders to travel longer distances.

Mr. Sunseri said that even though the elimination of zones will be a boon to riders, not being able to transfer will be a bust.

Right now, riders are able to transfer from bus to bus or bus to rail for a dime. After the change, riders will have to pay another fare for each transfer. MTA officials say a $3 all-day, unlimited pass would offset the costs.

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