Ridership up after transit fare increase Use of buses, light rail and subway grew 4.5% since March price rise

'Goes against the grain'

Surprise development pinned to simpler fees, service improvements

November 18, 1996|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Ridership on the Baltimore area's bus, light rail and subway systems has risen more than 4 percent since March, when transit officials took the controversial step of raising fares and shortening some bus routes.

Higher fares and more riders? The news defies an industry maxim that says, in essence, when you raise rates, you lose passengers.

"That definitely goes against the grain of what one would normally expect to happen after a fare increase," said Dennis M. Kouba, spokesman for the American Public Transit Association, an industry trade group in Washington. "It's definitely a plus for Baltimore."

According to trade group research, ridership should drop by 4 percent on average after a 10 percent increase in bus fares.

But in Maryland's case, ridership has grown by 4.5 percent since transit officials raised fares by 8 percent systemwide in March. The ridership increase is strongest on Metro subway and light rail.

Revenue also has grown 8 percent, enabling the Maryland Mass Transit Administration to meet its legal responsibility to raise half of its operating costs from the fare box.

The trend began months before a recent television advertising campaign promoting bus service and appears to be the result of other factors, officials said.

MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. credited the ridership growth to a simplified fare structure, which also took effect in March, along with service improvements in recent years.

Bruce C. Frame, a spokesman for the Federal Transit Administration, said, "When you simplify the structure, it makes transit more appealing to people."

Frame said he had heard of only a couple instances around the country in which a transit system's ridership rose after a fare increase.

MTA Finance Director Stephen J. Mangano acknowledges that the changes in fares in March were a gamble for the agency, which provides more than 350,000 passenger-trips a day.

Many riders were angered last winter when the MTA announced it was raising its base fare from $1.25 to $1.35, and eliminating or reducing a dozen underused bus routes.

The MTA ended transfer fares, introduced after the Civil War, and began offering an unlimited all-day pass for $3. The agency also abolished its zone system, which charged passengers a fee in addition to the basic fare each time they entered a different zone.

Under the new plan, someone riding from Anne Arundel County through Baltimore to Baltimore County pays the same fare as someone traveling a few city blocks.

At the time, critics protested and launched letter-writing campaigns that alleged racism and bias against city residents, who make shorter trips.

But the MTA said the changes modernized the system and better reflected changing commuting patterns that have many city residents traveling to jobs in the suburbs.

The all-day pass has proved popular among people who take transit to work, then hop aboard at lunchtime to visit downtown restaurants and shops, Agro said.

The recent ridership increase follows an almost 8 percent decline from mid-1991 to the middle of this year.

The number of passenger trips provided by MTA dropped from 96.4 million in 1991 to 91.1 million in 1994 to 89 million in the last budget year. Officials project a 5 percent increase, to 93.5 million trips, in the budget year that ends June 30.

Those figures do not include an average 4.6 million trips a year on Maryland Rail Commuter trains.

Baltimore's downward trend during the first half of this decade is not unusual. Among the the nation's 20 largest transit systems, ridership declined on 11 systems, rose on seven and remained stable on two from 1990 to 1994, said the transit association's Kouba.

Transit officials say many systems have been hurt by the recession of the early 1990s, coupled with a movement of jobs and people from cities to suburbs.

Although it shortened some underused bus routes last winter, the MTA overall has tried to improve service in areas likely to attract significant numbers of new riders, Agro said.

Relying on market research and employee input, the MTA fine-tuned some bus routes and added or extended some weekend transit service during the last two years, Agro said. For example, bus drivers noticed that people on the No. 3 line were walking several blocks to an apartment complex near Goucher Boulevard and Taylor Avenue. So the MTA extended service to that area, a change that is more than paying for itself, Mangano said.

MARC, a long-distance train service for people traveling between cities, raised fares 9 percent in March. Ridership has remained steady since, said Mangano. MARC is run by two railroad companies for the MTA, and its finances are separate from the Baltimore metropolitan transit system's.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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