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News Opinion Editorial

Baltimore gets stranded

As long as the General Assembly's top leaders are planning a special session to pick up the state's budget where last they left it, here's another item to add to the agenda: No MTA fare hike unless it's part of a broader agenda to revive the financially-depleted Transportation Trust Fund.

Little noticed in all the debate in Annapolis over spending cuts and new taxes was an instruction added to what's known as the BRFA (the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act), the bill that each year accompanies the budget, that requires the Maryland Transit Administration to raise fares on bus, light rail and subway services every two years to meet a 35 percent farebox recovery rate and keep up with the Consumer Price Index.

The BRFA did not pass. It died in the waning hours of the 90-day session along with the Fiscal 2013 tax bill, a failure that triggered the so-called "doomsday" budget that lawmakers are now scrambling to avoid.

But if the House and Senate reconvene in special session — a near-certainty in the coming weeks once the two chambers work out their differences to the satisfaction of Gov.Martin O'Malley— the BRFA is likely to be resurrected, too, and that language included.

If so, that would be an outrageous assault on Baltimore and its most vulnerable citizens. Forcing higher fares on bus riders in particular at a time when city unemployment rates remain unacceptably high (10.3 percent as of February) could cause considerable financial hardship.

What's truly shocking about the move, however, is that lawmakers would not even consider raising other forms of transportation-related revenue. Governor O'Malley's proposal to apply the state's 6 percent sales tax to gasoline couldn't even get a committee vote. Nor were legislators willing to pursue alternatives to rescue the trust fund.

Make no mistake, MTA fares will have to be increased in the near-future by some incremental amount. The city's $1.60 bus fare lags behind its peers and was last increased duringRobert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s term as governor. But to meet the arbitrary 35 percent recovery rate, the fare would have to be raised to $2.25.

How could the legislature willingly hit low-income riders so hard while totally ignoring the fact that Maryland's gas tax hasn't been raised since 1992? Whether they ride in a limousine or a jalopy, Maryland motorists have been living well on 20-year-old tax rates. If only transit fares had received similar treatment, Baltimore residents could claim the cheapest bus and train service in the country.

Frankly, we've always found the 35 percent recovery rate a foolish benchmark. It's mostly a sop to rural lawmakers who opposed city transit projects a generation ago. Such bean-counting fails to consider the social good that even a little-used transit line does if it connects a poor and isolated community to jobs and basic services.

Maryland may be regarded as among the most progressive states in the country, but you wouldn't know it from the recent machinations in Annapolis. Lawmakers couldn't pull the trigger on a modest increase in the income tax for those earning more than $100,000, but mandating a 40 percent increase in the cost of an MTA fare didn't cause a second thought?

Hello? Earth-to-Annapolis: This is not what you do to people living in areas of concentrated poverty while others are getting a free ride.

Maryland faces billions of dollars in transportation needs. There isn't enough money in the trust fund to keep up with basic repair and replacement, let alone expand the existing infrastructure to accommodate future growth. City transit riders shouldn't be the first people to make sacrifices to fix that particular problem.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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