Baltimore area bus riders and the public in general will have four opportunities early next month to comment on the Mass Transit Administration's proposals to eliminate or reduce service on 17 bus lines while increasing fares. If the adjustments become effective as scheduled Jan. 31, they will be the deepest cutbacks ever proposed by the MTA.
The MTA is under the gun because the recession has decreased its ridership, which in turn has reduced revenue. If fares are not increased now, the agency says, it will be unable to meet a legal mandate that requires it to cover half the operating costs from fares.
For the past nine years, this legal requirement served Maryland well. It forced the MTA to look at the bottom line while officially conceding that transit buses, Metro, MARC trains and light-rail are operated in the public interest and cannot be expected to be fully self-sustaining.
But if the current downward spiral of ridership and revenues continues, both Maryland's political leadership and the MTA will have difficult choices to make. Ticket prices can be increased only so much. If they are deemed to be exorbitant in relation to the quality and punctuality of service, a point may be reached where another fare increase becomes counter-productive. Instead of increasing revenues, it may decrease them.
Many of the proposed cuts in the current round concern suburban routes, while more heavily patronized city service continues with fewer adjustments. "People in the city are more likely to depend on a bus," explained an MTA manager.
Undoubtedly that is true. But the MTA is in danger of making everyone mad. Suburbanites deprived of bus service may try to turn this into a political city-bashing issue. If buses on the continued city routes become less frequent and more erratic, patronage may decrease. Clearly there are no easy choices for the MTA.
MTA Administrator Ronald J. Hartman believes the recent drop in ridership is linked to fewer employment opportunities. If he is right, MTA's fortunes ought to change when the economy begins improving. But no one knows when that might be.
In the meantime, we urge the MTA to redouble its efforts to find alternatives to important but marginally profitable routes that cannot support full-sized buses. Mini-buses or vans are not the whole answer. But if they are more widely used, they may introduce new flexibility and concepts that the whole system could use.
MTA needs continued good-will among people who rely on buses. In a metropolis plagued by increased congestion, public transit is often the only real option to automobiles. It must remain viable.