Maryland suffered some of the biggest employment losses in the nation last month, shedding 13,800 jobs between January and February. Given the state's recession-driven economic woes, the last thing lawmakers should be considering is to make it more difficult for low-income people to get to work.
But that's exactly what a major increase in the fares charged by the Maryland Transit Administration would do - make it that much tougher to match the unemployed with jobs. Just as legislators are rightly reluctant to raise taxes in the midst of a recession, raising fares by a staggering 30 percent or more is a tax that hits the poor hardest and a policy that can only hinder the recovery.
That legislative budget analysts have recommended a fare increase comes as little surprise; the MTA has struggled to meet the state's goal of a 35 percent fare box recovery rate and has not had a major fare increase in seven years. Other jurisdictions have been forced into fare increases including, most recently, the one proposed for Washington's Metro bus and rail passengers.
But the MTA's recovery rate of 30 percent is still well within national standards, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has wisely chosen cost-cutting, rather than a fare hike, as a better strategy for keeping the system in the black. The base fare for an MTA bus can't stay $1.60 forever, but the agency ought to hold onto the fare as long as possible - not because it pleases the governor's political base in an election year but because the economy (and most especially Baltimore's downtown employment center) needs it right now.
Republicans in Annapolis have been quick to endorse a fare increase. Their aversion to mass transit is nothing new, but one might have hoped they'd appreciate the impact such a move would have on businesses that depend on transit to bring them customers and employees.
The MTA serves a broad community of riders from relatively affluent MARC commuter rail passengers living in the suburbs to inner-city bus riders. Raising fares now is certain to reduce ridership across the board at a time when this country needs more, not fewer, people to choose public transportation to meet its long-term energy conservation, environmental and climate change goals.
A fare increase also does not directly help the state's general fund budget. The MTA is financed through the Transportation Trust Fund, money set apart to finance highways, public transit, BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport and other major transportation needs. Admittedly, lawmakers have made that distinction fuzzier in recent years by raiding the trust fund for tens of millions of dollars to help pay for other types of spending.
And while it's fair to note that the trust fund has a more than $80 billion backlog of projects, that's more a result of the General Assembly's failure to properly finance the fund than the cost of transit. The state's 23.5-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline hasn't been raised in nearly two decades, a policy that has stunted the growth of Maryland's transportation infrastructure.
So before lawmakers demand $1 million reports from the MTA on short-term and long-term fare policy, they ought to look in the mirror and come up with a sound transportation financing policy. Until that happens, the Baltimore region will have neither the transit service its residents need nor the ability to pay for it now or in the foreseeable future.
All rasing fares does is put too much financial strain on lower income individuals and families. No one wants to see taxes raised but it makes more sense to raise the money some other way like a temporary surcharge on income over $1 million a year than hit the people who can afford it the least.
Interesting that rural legislators, who only need to answer to their own constituents - the vast majority of whom don't use public transit - are the ones pushing these increases. And the governor, who comes from the city and who represents the entire state, is pushing back against increases.
I have ridden the MTA for a good portion of my 51 years. For the last six years I have been handicapped. The MTA has done an excellent job.
For those libertarians who wish to turn it over to the private sector, might I suggest you ride the MTA for one week? If you are capable of empathy, you may develop another point of view.