Raise fares on Baltimore's bus, light rail, and subway (and perhaps even on MARC commuter trains), and ridership will likely fall, particularly given the economy and the fact that so many transit riders live a hand-to-mouth existence. Cut service, and there's no doubt about it.
That's why one of the smarter decisions of Gov. Martin O'Malley's time in office has been to preserve existing Maryland Transit Administration fares and routes. Anything that prevents people — particularly poor people — from getting to work, school or job training would run counter to Maryland's ongoing economic recovery efforts.
But that doesn't mean the piper doesn't eventually have to be paid, and a recent report to the Maryland General Assembly shows it would take a sizable fare increase — hypothetically raising the base bus fare from $1.60 to $2.25 — to achieve the 35 percent farebox recovery rate that the legislature expects of its transit properties.
While the farebox recovery standard is at best arbitrary (although "nonsensical" is a better, if less diplomatic, description), the MTA can't hide the fact that Baltimore commuters have been treated far better than transit riders in many other cities. The agency hasn't raised fares since then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. increased the bus fare from $1.35 to $1.60 during his term in office.
Today, commuters in most cities pay more. In New York, the basic bus fare is $2.40; Philadelphia, $2; Chicago, $2.25; and Seattle, $2.50. None of them has gone without a fare increase for six years.
Although the O'Malley administration has yet to propose a fare increase, most believe one will be included if the governor agrees to a major boost in transportation spending next year. That's a connection that's been noted by the governor's own transportation secretary and was recommended by his blue-ribbon commission on transportation finances.
And something on the order of a 40-cent fare increase would be reasonable — but only if that link exists. The last thing lawmakers should pursue is a tax or fee that targets working-class people living in the areas of highest unemployment while not expecting anything of the rest of us.
Or, to put it more bluntly, expecting the $18,000-a-year fast-food worker who commutes by bus to pay 80 cents per day more while not increasing the tax on gasoline by 5 cents per gallon (as part of a recommended three-year, 15-cent-per-gallon overall tax increase) on those who drive to work far more luxuriously would be outrageous.
After all, the state gas tax hasn't been frozen for six years; it's been frozen for more than three times that long. If it had merely been required to keep up with inflation, the gas tax would have to be raised on the order of 50 cents per gallon instead of 15.
Make no mistake, raising fares by 40 cents to $2 would probably reduce ridership by several percentage points and cause genuine hardship for some people who have no alternative form of travel available to them. But leaving fares alone is not feasible, even under a governor as sympathetic to the plight of Baltimore's working poor as the current State House occupant.
And that's especially true if Mr. O'Malley is to invest in the kinds of transportation improvements Maryland's economy requires. As we've noted before, the Transportation Trust Fund can do little more than maintain existing roads, bridges and transit systems without an injection of new funds, and the gas tax is the most obvious target.
Finally, one would expect such a fare increase to be incremental — much like the administration's recent toll increase — and used to expand service where possible. The MTA should try to make the increase less daunting for those who can least afford it. Fares on MARC trains, for instance, should be raised much more than bus fares.
One solution might be to maintain or deepen the discount to day-pass users. MTA rider surveys have shown that most low-income commuters use day passes (they're more cost-effective than paying full fare but less pricey than a 30-day pass or building up credit on a CharmCard).
Meanwhile, expect the usual complaints from rural and suburban lawmakers who will claim that drivers "subsidize" bus and rail commuters already, happily ignoring the fact that roads are financed with a lot more tax dollars than are ever spent on transit. Putting the unemployed back to work ought to be a higher priority than meeting a meaningless farebox recovery rate.