But even with that additional spending, the MTA has had to cut back severely on such expenses as operator overtime. Regular riders, such as Ed Cohen of Baltimore, have noticed the results in the form of canceled bus runs and longer waits at stops.

"Right now there are people losing jobs because the MTA is not reliable," said Cohen, past president of the Transit Riders Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore.

Cohen said a 65-cent jump would be too much for low-income riders — who make up the majority of the MTA's customers in Baltimore — to absorb. Most use monthly or weekly discount passes, but the cost of them would likely rise in proportion to base fares, he said.

The administration has not necessarily done MTA riders a favor in the long term by holding rates steady for so long, said Cohen, who added that he would not object to an increase to $2. He said it would make more sense to make regular fare adjustments according to a formula rather than to wait for political leaders to make rate-setting decisions.

"At least the increases would be manageable to people," he said.

By holding its fares steady since 2003, the MTA has become an outlier among U.S. transit systems. Since then, most transit agencies have raised fares — some more than once. According to the American Public Transit Association, in 2010 alone, half of large transit agencies raised fares.

While MARC's farebox recovery rate remains higher than the Baltimore area's transit systems at 44 percent, it has slipped in recent years amid higher operating costs. Swaim-Staley said she doubted the commuter rail lane would be spared if there were an increase in other transit fares.

The MTA's Baltimore-area core bus service, with farebox recovery of above 30 percent, actually stacks up quite well against other large metropolitan bus systems and has much higher returns than most of the smaller public transit systems across the state and country. In Indianapolis, for instance, figures supplied by the American Public Transit Association show that the bus system recovers less than 20 percent of its revenues from fares. Annapolis Transit recently posted a farebox recovery figure of about 16 percent.

But the overall Baltimore system's numbers are dragged down by the low farebox recovery of the Metro and light rail systems, which are both single-line systems hampered by poor economies of scale. The highest recovery rates tend to be seen at transit agencies with extensive rail systems that are used by broad segments of the population — such as the subways in New York and Washington.

Mahlon G. "Lon" Anderson, public affairs director for AAA, contends the package of $870 million a year in revenue increases proposed by a commission on transportation funding comes down far too hard on motorists at the expense of other users of the transportation system. He said that if the gas tax and other road-use fees increase, transit fares should follow suit. But even though he's an advocate for drivers, he said fare increases can reach a point of "diminishing returns."

"You put millions of dollars into mass transit infrastructure and then you discourage its use by raising revenue," he said. "It's at some point self-defeating."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com