Like a bad Hollywood serial, Maryland's mass transit systems are beginning to look like runaway spending trains.
Trouble is, there's no rescue in sight for the taxpayers stuck on board.
Despite much grumbling from its patrons, Maryland's commuter rail system raised fares 19 percent this month. Nine months ago, Baltimore's bus, Metro and Central Light Rail Line raised base fares 15 cents from $1.10 to $1.25, a 13.6 percent increase.
Those are substantial fare increases. But they don't foot the bill for running and maintaining those systems.
The money riders feed into the fare box covers only half the operating cost of mass transit. The remaining deficit is paid by the taxpayer, mostly through gasoline taxes, motor vehicle titling charges and assorted fees.
But those same tax sources -- which collectively finance the Transportation Trust Fund -- are also responsible for building and maintaining state highways, running the state's airports and the Port of Baltimore and giving transportation aid to local jurisdictions.
All those functions, particularly road construction, are jeopardized by transit operating deficits that are growing faster than a Beltway traffic jam.
"Transit deficits are a cancer that could interfere with how we finance all other forms of transportation," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's Democrat who is chairman of a House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the transportation budget.
The crisis is not imminent. The state will be able to foot the bill for transit next year and the year after that. But it's clear the next governor and state legislature will have to take action or watch the state's highway system crumble -- or become intolerably overcrowded.
Consider, for instance, that between 1981 and 1993 the state spent $4.9 billion on highways and $3.2 billion on transit, a 60-40 ratio. Between now and 1999, that ratio is expected to be reversed, despite the fact that Baltimore transit ridership has dropped 20 percent over the past decade.
Transit advocates might think it's fair to put more money into bus and rail systems even though 69.8 percent of the state's work force drives alone to work. After all, mass transit benefits the environment, lessens the need for highway improvements, saves energy and yields social benefits.
But the money is not being sunk into transit to broaden the state's mass transit systems or to increase their capacity. Transit capital projects -- building rail lines or acquiring buses -- are not expected to take a bigger chunk out of the budget.
No, the money is needed primarily to keep existing transit systems running.
The Mass Transit Administration is not the only wellspring of red ink. Since last year, the Transportation Trust Fund has poured out millions of dollars to cover Washington's transit operating deficit. Previously, the state split Maryland's share of the deficit with Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Together, MTA and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority are expected to cost the state $2.7 billion over the next six years, more than twice what Maryland will be able to spend on highway construction.
The result is a shrinking road construction budget even though Maryland has one of the nation's highest gas taxes -- 23.5 cents per gallon. Within a few years, more of the State Highway Administration budget will be devoted to repairing potholes on existing roads than expanding the highway system.
"If you use 60 percent of your budget to move 3 or 4 percent of the people in the state, it isn't cost-effective," said Robert E. Latham, executive director of the Maryland Highway Contractors Association. "Frankly, I don't think the current thinking has any basis in reality."
There are many reasons for the rising transit costs, not the least ++ of which is a commitment by the state to expand public transit.
Baltimore's transit options have grown over the past decade with the addition of Metro, expansion of MARC and creation of light rail. The systems will expand further with the Metro extension to Johns Hopkins Hospital and light rail extensions to Pennsylvania Station, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Hunt Valley.
Metrorail in Washington is also in the midst of an expansion, adding four new stops to reach Greenbelt in Prince George's County on Dec. 11. The system, now 81 miles, is scheduled to add 22 more miles by 2001.
Transit unions, given their protection by the federal government, have seen their members' salaries increase at a higher rate than state wages. The average WMATA employee currently earns more than $44,000 per year.
Meanwhile, federal subsidies for transit salaries and other operating costs have not increased in 13 years. But the growth of federal mandates hasn't let up. For instance,local transit operations must provide more services for the disabled and screen employees for drugs and alcohol.
Critics argue that part of the solution has to be to get MTA and WMATA to cut costs. But is there much incentive to do that? The Transportation Trust Fund formula essentially protects the MTA from having to compete with other state agencies for funds.
"If you have a pot of money that isn't under scrutiny, people will spend it very easily," admitted David Gunn, WMATA's general manager.
Still, since 80 percent of any mass transit system's operatings costs are wages and benefits, there may be limits to how deeply expenses can be cut. Buses will always require drivers, mechanics and dispatchers, no matter how lean the operation.
"Efficiency will only get you so far," said Charles O. Bishop, spokesman for the American Public Transit Association in Washington. "After that, you have to reduce costs either by cutting back service or raising fares, and both policies are damaging because they discourage ridership."
Ultimately, if the state wants a viable mass transit system, lawmakers will have to find another way to foot the bill. Raising the gasoline tax is an option. (Factoring out inflation, we pay less at the pump today than at any point in the 1980s).
But that may be an option better left for the federal government than a state with a higher gas tax than any of its neighbors.
"We just can't stretch the state gas tax to support two major transit systems," said a Maryland Department of Transportation official.
What are the alternatives?
Ideally, transit advocates say it would be another dedicated tax, perhaps a penny on the sales tax or state property tax, that would go toward mass transit. It might also be a regional tax
collected from the city and suburban counties which benefit disproportionately.
In turn, the state legislature could relax its rule requiring the MTA to recover 50 percent of operating costs from the fare box, giving the agency more flexibility to attract new riders. With the MTA bus system losing ridership and the economy stagnant, the January 31 fare increase seemed particularly ill-timed. The October MARC fare increase might also have seemed less onerous if spread out over several years.
But that's unlikely to happen. With runaway costs already, who wants to put up fewer roadblocks to transit spending?
"Once you let the fox in the hen house, the fox never leaves,"
said Delegate Maloney.
Peter Jensen covers transportation for The Baltimore Sun.