Assembly pushes for higher MTA fares

Rate has remained flat under O'Malley administration

March 30, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's budget is shaping up in a way that could hand users of MTA services such as Baltimore buses and MARC trains their first fare increase in eight years despite the O'Malley administration's reluctance to charge more.

With growing pressure from rising expenses and a costly union arbitration settlement, the MTA is running far behind its statutory goal of recovering 35 percent of its operating costs from the fares its customers pay. In 2009, the amount recovered slipped to 28 percent, and the Department of Legislative Services estimated that it will be only slightly higher over the next two budget years.

This year, with lawmakers looking at all possible ways to balance the state budget, both houses have voted to require the MTA to raise fares enough to reach the target of 35 percent for farebox recovery — the percentage of operating costs covered before subsidy. That would likely translate into an increase of about 40 cents in one-way fares on Baltimore's buses, Metro and light rail. MARC riders, who pay higher fares that vary by distance, would likely see a proportionate increase.

Thomas Calhoun is one of the people who would pay.

The unemployed 56-year-old Edmondson Village resident, who was riding the No. 20 bus to a library to get on a computer to work on his job search, said even a modest increase in basic fares from $1.60 to the $2 suggested by legislative analysts would pinch.

"Sometimes it's hard to get the $2 up," he said. "Sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do, but right now a lot of people are out of work."

But low-income Marylanders may be reaching the end of a long respite from the fare increases that used to come with regularity. Fares on the MTA system have been frozen since the last time they rose, from $1.35 to $1.60 for bus, Metro and light rail, under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2003. It's the longest stretch in the agency's history without a fare increase.

Since winning election in 2006, Gov. Martin O'Malley, mindful that low-income Baltimoreans are an important part of his constituency, has held the line on fares even as transportation expenses have increased and revenues have withered.

But this may be the year the administration is forced to respond to a growing sentiment among lawmakers, particularly those from rural areas, that an increase can't be delayed much longer.

Last year, most of the pressure for fare increases came from the Assembly's minority Republicans, who were proposing a formula that would have required drastic increases to reach their goal of earning 50 cents out of every dollar spent from the farebox.

This year, the pressure comes from a majority of the legislature to seek a more modest increase.

Both the House and the Senate adopted language in the budget reconciliation bill that directs the administration to set fares "at an amount sufficient" to achieve the farebox recovery goal. Unless the language is altered in the conference committee, it appears likely to go to the governor in its current form.

If the current language stays, it would put pressure on the administration to set in motion the process of raising fares. Some General Assembly leaders believe the administration should act sooner rather than later.

"It behooves the agency to take a look at it and try to follow it to the degree that's requested," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway, D-Wicomico. "We would expect the request of the General Assembly would be met."

But it's not clear that the measure is binding this year. The measure also calls for the administration to submit a report on fares to the budget committees by Dec. 1, a provision that could allow the governor to push an unpalatable decision into the budget year that begins July 1, 2012. The budget watchdogs rejected a recommendation from budget analysts that they explicitly require an increase to $2 starting with the fiscal year that begins this July.

Warren Deschenaux, director of the Assembly's Office of Policy Analysis, said the mandate may be roughly as enforceable as the farebox recovery language in current law, a goal the MTA routinely fails to meet. In the past, when the MTA has failed to meet recovery targets, the Assembly has responded by lowering the bar.

"It's not clear that it will compel a fare increase," Deschenaux said. "It just expresses an interest in the fares picking up a bigger percentage of the costs."

The cost pressure on the MTA is quite real, however. The governor's budget called for a 6.2 percent increase in the MTA's operating budget to $652 million, with union labor costs as the single largest component of the increase.

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