MARC train riders urged Gov. Larry Hogan on Monday to delay fare increases announced by the Maryland Transit Administration and to order the agency to hold public hearings on hikes of as much as 67 percent for weekly ticket purchasers.
The MARC Riders Advisory Council, a group that advises the MTA on commuter concerns, called on Hogan to intervene before increases affecting about 36,000 daily commuters take effect. The hikes are part of a broader rise in MTA fares required under the 2013 law that raised the state's gas tax, but the riders contend the MTA went much too far in raising the fares for MARC weekly and monthly plans.
Steve Chan, chairman of the advisory council, said hearings would at least give riders the opportunity to hear the agency's explanation for the increases.
"We were not offered an opportunity to discuss this, and it would be a good thing for public relations if the governor at least allowed it to be discussed," he said.
The MTA announced May 26 it was imposing a "legislatively mandated transit fare increase" as of June 25. It pointed to the landmark law pushed through the legislature in 2013 to raise revenue to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund.
While the most publicized and debated parts of that bill involved increases in the gas tax, the measure also required the MTA to periodically raise transit fares to account for inflation.
Asked whether Hogan would order the public hearings, the governor's office sidestepped the question and put the responsibility for the increases on the Democratic-controlled legislature.
"MTA fare increases due to take effect this month are required by law under Maryland's Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013, which is also known as the Gas Tax bill, and was signed into law by the previous administration," said Matthew A. Clark, Hogan's communications director.
The General Assembly's advisory arm, the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services, described the law differently. It said the 2013 legislation requires the MTA to raise fares but does not specify changes it must make to the weekly and monthly plans.
Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, later said the increases to the monthly and weekly passes are higher because they reflect the addition of weekend service in late 2013 — something pass holders can use without paying an extra fare.
Henson insisted public hearings are not required, saying they are necessary only if the MTA goes beyond what's called for by law. She said the MARC increases are the minimum mandated by law.
Under the increases announced in May, the basic transit fare on MTA buses, light rail and the Baltimore Metro will rise from $1.60, where it has been frozen for more than a decade, to $1.70. Basic fares for MARC tickets will increase by $1 a ride, whether for a current $4 ticket from College Park to Washington's Union Station or an $11 ticket from Perryville to Washington.
The cost of a one-way ticket between Baltimore and Washington, now $7, will increase to $8. MARC fares have not risen since 2003.
The increases for transit users are coming one month after the Hogan administration gave motorists a break by reducing tolls on bridges, tunnels and highways operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority.
Chan said MARC riders have no quarrel with the $1-a-ticket basic fare increase. But the advisory council is fighting the MTA's changes to its weekly and monthly ticket plans. Chan said that while the Consumer Price Index rose a little more than 10 percent over five years, the MARC increases are as high as 67 percent.
In effect, MTA is abolishing the break that MARC riders have typically received for buying tickets in a weekly block. Where a commuter between Baltimore and Washington can now purchase a week's worth of tickets for $52.50, after June 26 the same purchase would cost $80 — an increase of more than 50 percent and the same amount a rider would pay for buying 10 one-way tickets.
Rafi Guroian, the council's former chairman and still a spokesman for the group, said that is far more than the MTA led the riders' group to believe it would impose in meetings before last month.
"We know this was coming," Guroian said. "We just did not know the fare increases would be different from what was previously described, nor did we know it would be so brutal."
MARC riders at Penn Station expressed dismay Monday afternoon over the increases.
Harry Carr, a Washington resident, said jokingly that he'd have to quit his job at Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore. "I didn't realize the increase was so much, but I guess I'll just have to roll with it," said Carr, 70, who buys a monthly pass at a senior discount.
Dave Treece, who commutes to Washington from Baltimore each day for his job with the Veterans Administration, said the increase in price for his monthly pass "is gonna hurt."
"It'd be nice to know what the justification is for such a large increase," said Treece, 58. "I wasn't surprised there was an increase, but I was surprised at the amount."
The planned increases for monthly purchases are not as steep as for buying tickets by the week but are still much higher than those for single ticket purchases. For instance, the monthly cost of commuting between Baltimore and Washington will jump from $175 to $216 — a 23 percent increase. The cost of traveling to Washington from the heavily used stations at BWI Marshall Airport and Halethorpe will go from $150 to $189, or 26 percent.
Sen. James E. "Ed" DeGrange, the Anne Arundel County Democrat who chairs a transportation subcommittee, said lawmakers of both parties believed fare increases were necessary to push the MTA toward its statutory goal of 35 percent farebox recovery.
"I don't think that's an unfair percentage," he said, noting that services would still be 65 percent subsidized by taxpayers.