Fare warning

August 31, 2004

LET'S SET THE RECORD straight: Baltimore's light-rail system has never been customer friendly, and the Maryland Transit Administration has never been particularly skilled at managing it, either. Even so, it's hard not to be appalled by the dysfunctional duo's latest misadventure, an incident that officials at the National Federation of the Blind call "horrific" and that has spawned a "Freedom Ride" protest of civil disobedience.

It all started three weeks ago when an executive with the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind and his wife tried to ride light rail. Both are blind, and they were unable to purchase tickets before boarding. Why couldn't they buy tickets? Because while the light rail's ticketing machines have Braille keys, their information is outdated. It's literally impossible for a blind person to operate them correctly.

What happened next is in dispute, but this much is clear: An MTA officer detained them, escorted them off their train, and issued them written warnings. According to the couple, it was not a friendly encounter, and they regarded themselves as under arrest for an hour. The NFB, a leading advocate for the nation's blind, has taken up their cause. Among other things, the nonprofit plans to stage a mass protest with unpaid riders flooding the light rail on a predetermined day.

MTA officials say the couple was never under arrest. They also claim that the officers in question (the initial officer called for back-up, believe it or not) followed standard procedure. It has always been the agency's policy to ticket and toss light-rail passengers who haven't paid their fares. Instead of a warning, the couple might have gotten a $35 ticket (it was the officer's discretion).

But even state officials must see what a silly policy this is. Yes, it's right to treat disabled people as you would anyone. But you first have to give them an equal chance to pay the fare. The MTA was clearly negligent. They didn't put much thought into what blind riders had to deal with to ride the system. Their police officers don't exactly roll out the red carpet to these particular customers, either.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan has promised changes. He admits some fault (nobody in his department bothered to update the ticketing machines' Braille keys after last year's fare increase). And he promises MTA police won't be ejecting any more blind passengers for the time being.

But the best long-term solution - ticket machines that use voice-interactive technology - could still be a year or more away. That's because plans call for the new machines to accept a universal transit card. It would be good on Washington and Baltimore transit systems. The development of that card has been delayed, however, by software problems.

Unfortunately, the real problem with light rail has never been technology, it's been the human beings that run it. The 12-year-old underachieving, underused system still has enormous potential - if the Ehrlich administration has the vision to correct its obvious flaws.

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