City's irate MTA riders say what's fair is no fare

January 17, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

City bus and subway riders should have seen this fare increase coming from a long way off -- like, say, Jupiter.

On Jan. 4, Mass Transit Administration officials announced they were socking it to commuters with yet another fare increase, citing the need to attract new riders (i.e., affluent and suburban) and the state law mandating that half the operating costs come from the loyal working-class riders who are the backbone of the system.

The All Peoples Congress, a veritable hotbed of leftists, swung into action to protest the 8 percent rate hike. Even leftists can't be wrong all the time, and it looks like the APC has at least two valid points. They are:

* The $70 million the state is being asked to put up for roads leading to Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke's new stadium in Prince George's County.

* The $200 million stadium Maryland will build for Art Modell's Browns.

The state can find money for Cooke and Modell but wants poor working folks to shell out more money for transportation? After mugging the city of Cleveland, state officials now want to mug the taxpayers and MTA commuters. Someone should stop them. Why not the APC?

"I've been involved in APC for 20 years," Lee Patterson told me in a fiery oration. "It's important we understand some of the issues of this 'Contract on America.' " That latter phrase is left-wingese for the Republican "Contract with America." Patterson went on to rip corporations, which he blamed for causing poverty when they move either to the suburbs or Third World countries. The fare increase is "a racist attack on inner-city poor."

Well, just when you thought it was safe to talk to a leftist again! All inner-city poor aren't black, the peculiar worldview of leftists notwithstanding. MTA officials are not guilty of "a racist attack on inner-city poor." But somebody should question the attitude of MTA workers, from officials down to drivers, toward their customers.

Part of the attitude is reflected in the trust the MTA puts in light rail riders, who get a ticket from a machine and just board the train. But it's an honor system. If you don't pay and no one checks, you get a free ride. The light rail caters to suburban customers, especially those who want to get to Camden Yards during the spring and summer to watch "dem O's."

But let the folks who need an MTA bus or the subway to get to work try to board without paying. They'll get the bum's rush in a New York second. "In suburbanites we trust, you city slickers pay cash," could be the MTA's motto.

But other protesters decried what they perceive as poor service and discourteous treatment by MTA drivers as another problem. Harold Hodge, who moved to Baltimore from Calvert County in 1993, said he collected 200 signatures in eight hours from people who claimed an MTA bus driver had passed them at a stop "at least once."

"I'm gonna make sure a lawsuit is slapped on these people if they don't keep the fare where it is," fumed Hodge, who also recalled the time one driver deliberately took him some three blocks past his stop.

As a former MTA rider, I find the service is excellent. But it's excellent with a but. In my years as a bus rider, there were times when drivers passed me by. I've witnessed some awful exchanges between MTA workers and passengers.

I had to break up a quarrel -- before it came to blows -- between a subway attendant and a young man over a 10-cent zone fare that the passenger didn't even owe. I saw one female bus driver call another customer a "bitch," give the woman her badge number and then dare her to call MTA officials to report it. I don't think MTA riders object to the fare increase per se. They probably just wonder if the MTA could save money by giving the boot to that minority of workers who clearly would like to be working elsewhere.

A. Robert Kaufman, longtime political activist -- who was the only one of what seems like a bazillion people running for the 7th District congressional seat to attend Monday's anti-fare increase rally outside Lexington Market -- said part of his platform is urban revitalization, and that high bus fares prohibit that.

"Inner-city transit should be free," Kaufman thundered into the microphone. "That will coax people back into the city. The only fare is no fare, and that's fair."

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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