Judging transit's performance

Why keep sabotaging Baltimore transit systems when the city needs them most?

Maryland's farebox recovery rule may be one of the most arbitrary and ineffective mandates in state transportation law. In simple terms, it requires the Maryland Transit Administration to recover at least 35 percent of its total operating costs from fares and other operating revenues. Why 35 percent and not 25 or 30 or 37.5? There isn't any real rationale.

The point of the mandate has been mostly to cap state spending on bus, subway and light rail service in the Baltimore area. It dates to an era when rural lawmakers worried that Baltimore, with all its population and political clout, could overwhelm transportation spending — grabbing Transportation Trust Fund revenue that might otherwise be spent mostly on highways and bridges. Many saw only waste in transit service.

But if improving transit efficiency was the goal, the farebox mandate was never an especially effective way to achieve it. Take light rail, for example. Right now, the Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie line posts a farebox recovery rate of about 16 percent. The problem? Poor ridership — a shortcoming not easily corrected with a fixed-rail service. Thus, MTA can only meet the farebox recovery rule by spending less on other, more popular forms of transit.

In other words, Baltimoreans don't get the transit service they need most because they are being penalized for a particular system they don't ride. That's like deciding not to widen the Capital Beltway because the Intercounty Connector isn't attracting enough traffic. Who makes transportation decisions like that? Other states don't.

Indeed, the MTA has only made the 35 percent threshold in recent years because it operates one system where operating revenue covers roughly half the operating costs. That would be its MARC commuter rail system which, according to a 2011-2015 analysis of Maryland Department of Transportation revenue, returns as much as 56 percent from the farebox.

So is there some point for having commuter rail passengers (the majority headed to jobs in Washington, D.C.) subsidizing light rail service to Cherry Hill or Mount Washington? None whatsoever. It only produces a weird disincentive for the MTA to invest in MARC — as expanding service inevitably reduces farebox recovery rates. The Charm City Circulator collects nothing from passenger fares; does that make it bad?

Last year, Del. Brooke Lierman of Baltimore and Sen. Rich Madaleno of Montgomery County proposed eliminating the farebox recovery rule, but their legislation went nowhere. This year, they've got a better idea, promising legislation that would not merely eliminate the ineffective rule but replace it with something better — performance metrics. The idea is to consider whether transit systems are efficient, reliable and connecting people to jobs and whether ridership is on the upswing.

Transit advocates like the new Get Maryland Moving coalition have endorsed the measure as a way to strengthen public transportation in the Baltimore region. It's also a timely effort given that the MTA is scheduled to raise fares this summer — a hike that is likely to improve its farebox recovery numbers but drive away riders.

It's also a good time to give the MTA greater flexibility given the agency's BaltimoreLink overhaul. If the MTA ends up shifting bus schedules and routes substantially — and that appears certain at this point — it could use greater flexibility. It simply takes time for potential riders to discover transit alternatives. Buses that are only one-quarter filled tomorrow might be able to be three-quarters filled one year later, but only if the MTA can maintain service.

That should be reason alone for Gov. Larry Hogan to endorse the measure. It helps the MTA with BaltimoreLink, and it can potentially lessen the impact of a fare increase and help Baltimore's economy recover from the Freddie Gray unrest. And given the governor's adversarial relationship with Baltimore transit — killing not only the Red Line light rail project but the city's long-await transit oriented development at State Center — he could probably use a little political good will from the Baltimore region right about now.

But here's the real bottom line — the MTA won't be spending a dime more on transit than Governor Hogan wants to spend. That's true whether the farebox recovery measure is on the books or not. And, as the governor has also made clear, Baltimore lawmakers are powerless to stop him. Whatever fears of a Baltimore takeover of the transportation budget rural lawmakers might have harbored decades ago, the political landscape (and simple demographics) have changed, particularly under a Republican governor.

Mr. Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly, get rid of this impediment to Baltimore's future prosperity.

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