Time for transit

September 22, 2005

IN SAN JOSE, Calif., employers can give newly hired workers free bus and light rail passes so they can try out the local transit system. Denver residents can enter a drawing to win a seat in Oprah Winfrey's studio audience by pledging to take a bus to work one day each week. A bus pass in Pittsburgh can also earn riders a discount at participating stores. Across the country, transit agencies are seizing an opportunity: High gas prices can persuade commuters to leave their beloved cars behind and hop a bus, light rail, subway or commuter train to work.

What is the Maryland Transit Administration doing? In a matter of weeks, the agency is implementing a sweeping overhaul of bus routes that is likely to anger riders whose routes are reduced or eliminated. But that's not all. Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan now says he might have to raise fares in the near future to cover higher-than-expected diesel fuel costs. The timing couldn't be worse.

To be fair, the MTA's bus plan was overdue (if only to eliminate inefficiencies), and Mr. Flanagan's estimated $8 million in extra fuel costs has to be paid by somebody. But it's not unreasonable to question the MTA's long-term vision for Baltimore transit. If this isn't the time to bring new riders to public transportation, when is? In the private sector, $3-a-gallon gas would be seen as a tremendous marketing opportunity. The MTA ought to be touting its product, dropping its fares and expanding its offerings.

Mr. Flanagan has demonstrated a willingness to compromise. His Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative was scaled back from what he originally proposed. (Unfortunately, it's still expected to cause a 2.8 percent drop in daily rides and reduce the quality of service during peak periods, according to a Baltimore Metropolitan Council analysis.)

Central Maryland needs better transit service. In many other metropolitan areas, transit ridership is growing. The advantages are clear: It can provide a safer, cleaner and more-efficient form of travel. Most important, it can provide an economic lifeline to those who need a job but have no other way to get to one. But those advantages are lost if the MTA continues its downward spiral of shrinking numbers of riders and services.

To turn things around, Maryland must be willing to seize the moment. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. can start by asking the General Assembly to set aside its requirement that the agency recover 40 percent of its operating costs from the farebox. One alternative: Let startup services - new bus routes, for instance - be exempt from the calculation. Public transportation is a worthy investment, and the farebox recovery restriction is short-sighted. Spend money now and the state could reap tremendous savings in the future.

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