MTA faces legislative calls to raise rail, bus fares

O'Malley administration resists national trend of increases in down economy

  • These bus passengers in White Marsh and other MTA patrons could see the base fare of $1.60 rise to $2.15 or more to reverse a decline in rider-generated operating income.
These bus passengers in White Marsh and other MTA patrons could… (Baltimore Sun )
March 29, 2010|By Michael Dresser |

Linda Powell works at the Walmart at Golden Ring Mall and rides the Route 35 bus to work. At 55, Powell says she's got a long way to go before she's eligible for a senior fare. So the prospect of an increase in the Maryland Transit Administration's current $1.60 base fare - a step recently suggested by state legislative analysts - fills her with dread.

"This is my only means of transportation going to work," she said. "Everything's going up but your wages. ... Nobody can afford it."

There is growing pressure from Annapolis to raise fares - which have not changed since 2003 - to recover more of the transit agency's expenses from riders of its bus and rail services. Some have proposed boosting the base fare to $2.15 or even higher.

The O'Malley administration has vowed to hold the line through the rest of this year, and Administrator Ralign T. Wells said the MTA is concentrating its efforts on cost-containment measures, such as an effort to reduce unscheduled overtime.

"We've decided we're going to look inside our own house before we look outside," Wells said.

That strategy runs counter to a national trend of fare increases as transit systems face mounting costs and recession-related declines in tax revenues. According to an American Public Transit Association study last year, almost 90 percent of large transit agencies have been forced to raise fares or cut service in recent years. With continuing revenue shortfalls, it is likely that number has only increased.

Already this year, Washington's Metro transit system adopted a "temporary" fare increase to solve the shortfall in one budget year and is looking at other, permanent increases to stave off service cuts in its next budget. New Jersey Transit has proposed a 25 percent fare increase, accompanied by service cuts and layoffs. And New York, which increased its base subway and bus fare by 50 cents to $2.50 last year, followed that action this month with $93 million in service cuts - including the elimination of transit lines and bus routes.

The MTA has made some service cuts since a major round of trims in 2005, but they have been relatively modest - falling largely on commuter bus routes. Nor have base fares increased since they jumped from $1.35 to $1.60 in 2003.

Meanwhile, the percentage of operating expenses paid for by passenger fares - a measure known as "farebox recovery" - has eroded from 33 percent in 2006 to a projected 30 percent this year and next. That falls short of the statutory target of 35 percent set in state law. But according to public transit association spokeswoman Virginia Miller, 30 percent is about average among U.S. public transit agencies.

The MTA's farebox recovery from its generally more affluent MARC commuter train passengers, who pay higher fares than local bus and rail riders, has eroded more sharply - from 59 percent in 2006 to an expected 42 percent next year - as contractual payments to the railroads who own the Penn, Camden and Brunswick lines have increased.

The General Assembly's legislative analysts estimated recently that the MTA would have to raise its base fare by 55 cents - to $2.15 - to meet its statutory recovery goals. Exerting not-so-subtle pressure on the administration to consider a fare increase, the analysts recommended holding back $1 million of the MTA's budget until it submits reports on short-term and long-term fare policy. The MTA's parent Maryland Department of Transportation opposes that recommendation, contending any fare increase would hurt ridership growth at a time when MTA customers are dealing with economic hardship.

According to the MTA, it could not impose an increase to take effect this year even if it decided to do so now. The agency said that it would take at least nine months to implement such a change because of public hearing requirements and the need to reprogram systems, among other things.

But the MTA's stance comes at a time of growing budget pressure, when legislators are scratching for alternatives to cut spending and avoid raising taxes. In a recent alternative budget proposal, two Senate Republicans recommended setting the farebox recovery rate at 50 percent. According to the MTA, that would translate into a base fare of $2.75 to $3 - more than a 70 percent increase.

"They're not living in the real world," said Andre Powell, a Route 35 rider who works for the Department of Social Services. "The state should bite the bullet and not put another burden on the backs of the poor and working people."

Melissa Aikins, a mother of four, said it already costs her $20 a day to go shopping with her children. "This is how I get around. This is how I get them going, and children, you can't keep them cooped up in the house," she said. At the rates required for a 50 percent farebox recovery, she said, "we'll never be going nowhere."

In part, the divergent views on public transit fares reflect regional and political differences.

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