Wrong way on mass transit Fare box mandate: Proposed cut, restraints could keep MTA from achieving its mission.

March 06, 1998

STATE LEGISLATORS wanted to ensure that the Mass Transit Administration would be fiscally responsible when they mandated that it recover half its operating expenses from the fare box. The goal is worthy; the system needs accountability.

But the tough restrictions threaten to undermine the state's mission to provide a regional public transportation network that can accommodate changing commuting patterns.

Things could get worse. A legislative analyst recommends withholding $10 million from the MTA's $270 million budget, a move that would weaken an agency the state should bolster. MTA Administrator Ronald L. Freeland says he would have to eliminate some commuter bus service into Baltimore from suburban communities as well as some weekend subway and light rail service if the General Assembly follows the recommendation.

Rather than punish the agency for falling short of the 50 percent recovery by two to three percentage points, state legislators should work with the MTA to provide better service to commuters, employers, the elderly and others for whom public transportation is a lifeline.

The agency is having trouble recovering 50 percent of its expenses from the fare box because it now must include light rail revenues and expenses in the equation. The central light rail line recovers only 29 percent of its revenue from customers, but lawmakers should be encouraged that ridership is on the rise. Ridership increased 21 percent from 1995 to last year, and should flourish with the links to Hunt Valley and Baltimore-Washington International Airport that opened in the fall.

MTA is among the few transit systems in the country required to recover half its costs from the fare box. But lawmakers can accomplish the same goal -- fiscal responsibility -- with a lower percentage that would not stunt the system's growth. The Baltimore area's transit system never will be able to adequately serve suburb-to-suburb and city-to-suburb commuters, let alone traditional patterns, if it remains hamstrung by suffocating constraints.

The proposed budget cut would not make mass transit more responsible; it would make it more unreliable, less convenient and probably more costly. It would be a step in the wrong direction. The legislature must let the MTA cast off the 50 percent shackle so it can reach emerging residential and employment destinations.

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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