It is regrettable that economic conditions are forcing the Mass Transit Administration to propose the elimination or reduction of service on 17 of the Baltimore area's 62 bus lines. That is worse news than MTA's intention to increase the Metro fare by 15 cents to $1.25. Even in tough economic times, people will be able to handle modest fare hikes somehow. But if whole transit routes are canceled or off-peak and night service curtailed, people who must rely on public transport -- particularly job-seekers and elderly people -- will suffer.
We understand MTA's reasons for these belt-tightening measures. Like other government agencies (and private businesses), the state's transit agency is cutting corners to meet its budget constraints. Unlike many other agencies, however, MTA has to satisfy a specific legal requirement -- that its ticket income cover half of the system-wide operating costs.
The proposed increases -- scheduled to become effective Jan. 31 -- would help achieve that mandate by eliminating or reducing service on some of MTA's least patronized and least profitable Baltimore area routes. But even MTA Administrator Ronald J. Hartman fears his agency may one day be confronted with a situation in which a rate increase will be self-defeating -- )R producing less ticket revenue than did the previous, lower rate.
Some governmental services will never be self-sustaining. Maryland has long realized that is the case with many of MTA's operations. In Baltimore City and throughout the state, the agency has routes that are real money makers. But it also runs services that are constantly operated at a loss. Yet the public interest requires that they be continued.
MTA's long-term challenge is to develop a bus route system that is flexible enough to satisfy the conflicting demands of sufficient revenue-generation and comprehensive regional coverage. In particular, the transit administration should aggressively pursue alternatives to regular buses on routes which are important for the public but where full-sized passenger carriers have not proven to be an economically viable option.
The popularity of urban mass transit seems to go in cycles in America. In Baltimore and many other cities, the 1980s registered increases in riderships. The '90s so far have seen a reversal in this trend. Ridership has decreased as many employers have shrunk their work force. MTA may find it difficult to navigate such periodic changes like these. But public transit has little real future unless it can offer the population reliable and predictable service at costs that are affordable.