Take me out to the ballgame

April 10, 2007

As any business owner will tell you, little things mean a lot to a customer. Baltimore public transit has its share of problems, but at the heart of many of them is that customers are too seldom treated as kings. Unscheduled delays, equipment breakdowns, surly operators - the Maryland Transit Administration has its share of all those irritants and more. But there are some occasional glimmers of hope.

The latest is the MTA's decision to lower the fares for park and ride express bus service to and from Orioles games. Beginning with yesterday's home opener, adults will pay $10 and children $5 to take the buses from one of three starting points - White Marsh, Essex and Catonsville. The old fares were $12 for adults and $6 for children 6 to 16.

That may seem like a small thing - and in some respects, it is - but the decision suggests the agency is paying attention to its customers, and that's worth noting. Ridership on the express buses has been in decline, and the costly fare had a lot to do with it.

Why charge so much? Because MTA officials regarded service to Orioles games as an extra, not part of the core mission, and expected the buses to pay for themselves. In the parlance of public transit, that means the agency expected 100 percent farebox recovery compared with the 40 percent that's expected from regular service.

The problem with that philosophy is that home Orioles games represent a golden opportunity for the MTA to demonstrate the advantages of public transit. These are nontraditional riders - often people who can afford not only a car but a downtown parking space as well.

And, as yesterday's midday traffic jam downtown should remind everyone, one of the points in building Oriole Park at Camden Yards was to take advantage of the easy access to a variety of transit modes. When the ballpark opened 15 years ago, bus and rail ridership was much more robust than it is today in general and to Orioles games specifically.

Interest flagged, for several reasons. But things could improve. The double-tracking project that hurt light rail ridership in recent years could now provide an advantage - if the MTA will consider operating express service for the games.

Baltimore transit needs to be viewed as an important and growing part of the region's future and not merely as an expensive obligation of taxpayers. Reducing the cost for a baseball-loving family of four from $36 to $30 is a modest step in a sensible direction.

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