Making mass transit popular MTA's plan: Transit agency's fare and route changes in best interests of system long-term.

January 15, 1996

HOW CAN THERE BE mass transit if the masses aren't taking the transit? That was the premise behind the rate and route restructuring plans announced by the Mass Transit Administration.

To be sure, the agency has enjoyed a few high-profile successes in recent years: the inauguration of the light rail line that coincided with the opening of Oriole Park and the extension of the Metro system to Johns Hopkins Hospital that has added 3,000 new riders. But by and large, mass transit officials 'N recognize that they have enjoyed only modest increases in ridership while highway traffic counts and the duration of the workday rush hour in the Baltimore-Washington corridor keep ballooning.

So the MTA approached the problem this way: Rather than simply propose a routine fare hike to keep pace with costs, let's restructure the system to make it more appealing to new customers and old ones alike. How about a one-price "day pass" of $3 that would let people ride whenever and wherever they like in a given day, without the need for confusing transfers? How about one price for a monthly pass, $54, that eliminates the former "zone" system, which was an imminently fair way to price the system but was also intimidating and confusing?

That last change may cost city riders more than suburban dwellers, but not as much as some critics argue. The greatest share of transit passengers cross just inside and outside the beltway, half of them riding the Metro to jobs downtown, the other half catching buses to the county. So the impact is fairly even.

The agency has pared some routes with low ridership -- dictated in part by a state mandate that half its costs come from fares. It has alter other routes to serve some of those riders. Indeed, as the state has an obligation to support existing businesses while trying to woo new ones, the MTA must not neglect people, often in poorer communities, who depend upon buses. Nevertheless, government must find ways to boost mass tranit to ease pressure on air quality and the taxes going into expensive highway construction. The MTA deserves support in working toward those ends.

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