Lower fare box rule gives transit a chance

Transit: Proposed change would remove a restriction that has hamstrung public transportation.

March 04, 2000

BALTIMORE'S mass transit riders are on the verge of a breakthrough. For years, they have desperately needed better service and more efficient routes. But the Mass Transit Administration has never been given a chance to deliver.

That chance may soon come if state legislators lower an obstacle that makes it almost impossible for the MTA to improve service.

The obstacle is a law that requires the state's transit agency to recover half of its operating costs from passenger fares. The 50 percent threshold is the second highest in the country, and for years the MTA has failed to meet that ridiculous standard. As a result, transit officials are afraid to introduce new services. They fear new routes could take too long to build ridership and cause the recovery percentage to shrink even more.

This stifles the chance for transit planners to add needed lines -- like the one between White Marsh and downtown, or between Baltimore and Columbia -- or devise innovative mini-bus routes.

Legislation proposed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening gives MTA officials some latitude. The measure would reduce the fare box recovery threshold to 40 percent, which would put Maryland's transit systems in line with most other agencies in the country.

The proposal includes other, better ways to measure public transportation's efficiency. The transit agency would have to report the operating expenses for each mile a vehicle travels, expenses for each passenger trip and the number of passenger trips per vehicle mile. These standards are used widely across the country.

In addition, an independent audit every four years would hold the MTA accountable.

If the bill passes, the MTA could become a better system and help the state strive toward its goal of doubling transit ridership by 2020. Quality public transit is essential to help suburbanites reach jobs in the city and to get Baltimoreans to suburban employment centers, an important consideration in this Welfare to Work age.

The governor's proposal has broad support from Baltimore and Washington lawmakers. Surprisingly, both a key environmental group, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the highway construction industry back the idea.

It was refreshing to see high-ranking Baltimore officials testifying passionately in Annapolis for the fare box recovery reduction. In the past, the Schmoke administration was not on the front line to lobby for mass transit.

But Tuesday, Baltimore Deputy Mayor Jeanne D. Hitchcock said: "We take the issue of transportation very seriously as the new administration coming into Baltimore City government -- Today we are here because we have identified a need in Baltimore City that will be met by reductions in the fare box requirement."

State lawmakers should pass this bill, which would give the MTA a chance to serve its existing customers and reach out to new ones. Reducing the fare box mandate would make that possible.

Pub Date: 3/04/00

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