Transit policy hurts those you can't see

March 16, 2004|By Barbara T. Cutko

I SPEAK FOR the invisible people.

I was not always invisible. For years I drove to and from work, never noticing the groups of people waiting at bus stops, huddled against freezing wind and cold, snow and rain, wilting in summer's sweltering heat. The Maryland Transit Administration reports that its buses and trains are boarded over 350,000 times every day. How could so many people go so unnoticed?

Now I'm a senior citizen, trying to get around the region on public transit, waiting at bus stops - one of those patient, invisible people. That's why I'm active with the Transit Riders League of Metropolitan Baltimore, formed in 1999 by the Citizens Planning and Housing Association to give a voice and face to the least-recognized constituents in our state.

Having diverted millions of dollars from the Transportation Trust Fund, the Ehrlich administration is proposing motor vehicle fees to bring in new revenues.

Nobody mentions that transit riders already began paying higher fees in July. Fares were increased 18.5 percent on buses and 36 percent on MARC trains, while cuts were made to more than 10 rail and bus lines.

This was devastating to riders. When auto registration fees increase, it's a biennial fee for the household. When transit-dependent families get fare increases, it means each member pays more every time they go anywhere from then on.

Compare two families whose parents are hospital employees. The Smith parents, a doctor and an administrator, have three school-age kids, an SUV and a sedan. According to an article in The Sun, their fee for the two vehicles would increase by $59.50 per year - $36 for the SUV and $23.50 for the sedan.

The Jones parents are a kitchen worker and a nurse's aide. With their three school-age children, they get around on MTA. The parents' monthly passes are up $10, and their children pay an additional 50 cents for every round trip to Grandma's, day care, church, library, clinic, shopping, a friend's house, recreation - at least $8 more each a month. That totals $44 per month for the family, or $528 per year, compared with the prospect of $59.50 for the far more affluent family.

That's why legislation before the General Assembly is so important to us.

Its passage would prevent the fare box recovery rate from being raised to 50 percent. If the percentage of transit revenues required from riders is raised, the elderly, people with disabilities, low-income workers, commuters, students - everyone who uses transit for whatever reason - will be facing our third fare increase in eight years. The state gasoline tax hasn't gone up in more than 10 years. It's unbelievably unfair.

Transportation is a basic human need - like food, clothing and shelter. People in poverty make desperate choices. There are families who couldn't pay heating bills this winter because the money had to go toward transportation to jobs.

Rail and bus users contribute to the public good by reducing the number of vehicles on the roads. This means decreased air pollution and respiratory problems, less paved-surface run-off into the Chesapeake Bay, less gridlock and accidents, less sprawl and loss of wildlife habitat, less demand for new parking garages and less consumption of foreign oil.

Motorists would do well to glance aside and see their fellow travelers waiting at the bus stops. We are all in this transportation funding mess together. Let's strive for an equitable way to share the costs of replenishing Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund - and then make sure it is a fund we can all trust.

Barbara T. Cutko is a retired Baltimore school social worker and recent co-chair of the Transit Riders League of Metropolitan Baltimore.

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