Putting the brakes on an MTA fare increase

Our view: Bus and rail fares will have to go up someday, but Gov. O'Malley should work to make any increase as gradual as possible

March 31, 2011

Maryland Transit Administration fares have to go up eventually. It has been eight years since the last fare increase, the longest such stretch in the agency's history, and at some point the cost of fueling and running buses and trains was bound to force a change. A recent award by an arbitrator that is forcing higher salaries and pension contributions for transit union members didn't help, and the system is now well short of its goal to recoup 35 percent of its expenses at the farebox. Nonetheless, the legislature is wrong to push for an immediate fare increase that could raise the cost of a bus ride by as much as 25 percent. The poor are extremely dependent on mass transit, particularly local bus service, and forcing such a large fare increase at a time when so many are struggling to find and keep jobs would be a mistake.

MTA fares have always been a political hot-button issue in Annapolis, where rural lawmakers have long argued that their constituents, who generally don't have access to mass transit, should not be so heavily subsidizing a service for residents of the state's urban areas. The state's budget troubles are creating additional pressure for a fare increase, and both the Senate and House of Delegates included language in a bill that accompanies the budget directing the MTA to set fares at an amount sufficient to meet the 35 percent goal. (Oddly, however, the House of Delegates recently voted 89-46 to allow legislative and judicial branch state employees to ride the MTA for free, as executive branch employees already do.)

As much as some legislators may want fares to go up during the budget year that starts July 1, the O'Malley administration has indicated the process will take much longer. There's good reason not to rush.

Critics of MTA subsidies see them as a pure giveaway, but they are in truth one of the state's most important jobs programs. Without accessible, affordable mass transit, much of the region's poor would have no other way to get to work. Reducing farebox subsidies may save the state in the short term — the difference between what the system collects now and the 35 percent goal amounts to $25 million — but it would ultimately cost more in terms of unemployment, lost tax revenue and greater use of social services. And for those who do have a choice of how to get around, lower ridership would only put more cars on the road and more pressure on already burdened streets and highways.

Even if the budget language remains intact as the two chambers finalize next year's spending plan, the MTA would have until Dec. 1 to make a formal report to the legislature on what it would take to achieve the 35 percent goal — the projected increase from $1.60 to $2 is just an estimate — and after that, the agency would have to hold a series of public hearings before a fare increase could be enacted. That would take seven or eight months, so under any circumstances, an increase wouldn't come for more than a year.

In the meantime, the administration should work toward a more comprehensive solution for the state's transportation funding. Although no plans have been formalized, the legislature will have to come back before January in a special session to redraw the state's congressional district maps, and possibly its legislative maps, too. There's widespread talk in Annapolis that the governor and General Assembly would then also take up far-reaching legislation to address the state's transportation needs — both roads and mass transit — through some kind of added revenue, whether an increase in the gas tax or something else.

Such action is long overdue, and MTA fares should be taken up in that context. When they are, the governor should advocate for any increase to be more gradual, so that those who depend on mass transit most won't be unduly harmed.

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