No fare: Brewer, MTA to provide free rides on New Year's Eve

This New Year's Eve, the ride's on MillerCoors.

The giant brewing company is providing $25,000 to the Maryland Transit Administration to underwrite free rides on bus routes, light rail and the Metro for six hours from 8 p.m. Friday to 2 a.m. on New Year's Day. It will be the first free New Year's Eve MTA rides in Baltimore and the first East Coast venture for the 23-year-old Miller Lite Free Rides program.

The purpose of the program is to give drinkers and others an alternative to driving on one of the most dangerous nights on Maryland highways, said officials from MillerCoors, the MTA, the State Highway Administration, AAA Mid-Atlantic and city government, who gathered at the Inner Harbor Tuesday to promote the initiative.

"We think we can raise awareness about the danger of drunk driving," said MillerCoors spokesman Julian Green. "We think drunk driving is completely preventable because it's a choice."

But Green and MTA officials emphasized that the free ride program isn't just for those who are inclined to celebrate with the ingestion of adult beverages. They said it would also provide an attractive alternative for families that might want to come downtown for the New Year's Eve fireworks show at the harbor without having to worry about the traffic.

Nevertheless, the message of the program is targeted heavily at consumers of products made by the sponsor and its competitors.

"With great beer, comes great responsibility," Green said.

Vernon Betkey, director of the state's Office of Highway Safety, said that about 150 people a year die in alcohol-related crashes on the state's roads — a number that has not declined as total fatalities have fallen.

"We need a cultural shift emphasizing that drinking and driving is not just against the law, it's a bad idea," Betkey said.

While the program is at least partly aimed at getting drinkers out of their cars and onto buses and trains, Green said there have been no problems with rowdiness in other cities where the company has offered the program.

"The only difference is that the rides are free," he said.

MTA spokesman Terry Owens said the agency also sees the occasion as an opportunity to market its services.

"This is a tremendous opportunity to promote the service to people who may not ever use it," he said. As part of its effort to attract riders, the MTA will keep its light rail and Metro systems open New Year's Eve until 2 a.m. On most Fridays, the light rail makes its last run at 11 p.m., and the Metro closes at midnight.

According to Green, the free rides program began in Milwaukee and has since grown to 13 cities, including Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul. In some cities, he said, it has been expanded to other holidays marked by heavy alcohol consumption — including St. Patrick's Day and Halloween. He said that over its 23-year history, the Miller Lite program has provided 2.4 million free rides on various transit systems.

The MTA free rides add a new choice in the state's efforts to provide alternatives to driving for holiday revelers. The SHA is also co-sponsoring the long-running Tipsy?Taxi! program with AAA and Yellow Cab, offering free cab rides home from Baltimore bars between midnight New Year's Eve and 4 a.m. New Year's Day. The phone number for that service is 877-963-TAXI.

Green said he hopes this New Year's free rides will be repeated on future holidays.

"Hopefully, this is the start of a relationship to continue," he said.

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