Horse collar on mass transit Fare box mandate: State agency is shackled by penny-wise, pound-foolish requirement that is among the most restrictive in U.S.

December 01, 1997

SINCE 1983, Maryland's legislature has stunted mass transit's potential, applying constraints that have thwarted the state from moving into emerging job centers where workers and businesses both need greater transportation access.

Rapid business growth is creating vast employment in the suburbs. Places like Columbia and the Interstate 95 corridor in Harford County are luring labor-intensive companies to Maryland that could have gone to other states.

But prospective employees are finding it is difficult to reach these jobs in outlying areas from the city or to travel from one suburb to another without cars. There's little adequate public transit as an alternative to clogged rush-hour traffic.

The state's Mass Transportation Administration should set up routes to unserved job areas. But it won't. Transit officials hesitate to launch or expand services. A chief culprit is a Maryland law that requires the state to recover half its revenue from bus and rail fare boxes and other sources of non-government revenue such as advertising.

Few major transit systems in the country labor under such a restrictive threshold. Chicago -- with a well-established network of mass transit lines -- requires 52 percent of its operating expenses to flow from the fare box, but Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Atlanta, San Diego and Tampa have a requirement of less than 40 percent. The mass transit fare-box recovery mandate in Seattle is just 15 percent.

Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead bravely offers a stiff upper lip. He defends the state's ,, high requirement as a way to impose fiscal responsibility on his agency.

That was obviously the state legislature's intent. But it is a false economy: It discourages mass transit innovation and instead becomes an impediment to building market share. It places a stricture on the development of mass transit that highway projects don't have to bear. And it ignores mass transit's considerable benefits, such as reduced air pollution and lower infrastructure costs.

MTA has made numerous advances since its creation in 1970 as the successor to the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The 15.5-mile Baltimore Metro line and the 27-mile Central Light Rail Line are major accomplishments in this region. They must be expanded.

There was no mention of Howard, Carroll and Harford counties in the law that created the agency. Service to those rapidly growing, auto-dependent jurisdictions remains scarce. For example, the most densely populated area of Harford County, the "development envelope" off Interstate 95, has no park-and-ride service. It makes no sense.

County executives should be urging their State House delegations to push for more aggressive public transportation service to their communities. Previous efforts have proved insufficient. The legislature can pave the way by relaxing the 50 percent fare-box requirement and then prodding MTA to use that new flexibility to serve more customers.

An unbridled MTA can provide a better regional system of bus and rail routes for commuters and businesses. But it will not keep pace with changing home-to-work patterns if legislators refuse to loosen this horse collar on mass transit.

Pub Date: 12/01/97

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