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MTA fare hike: Yet another cruel reminder of Baltimore's $2.9B loss

This week, state transportation officials sent out a press release advising the public that beginning on June 23, Baltimore area commuters will be paying more to ride Maryland Transit Administration buses, light rail and subway lines as well as MobilityLink vehicles. The announcement correctly notes that the higher fares are mandated by a 2013 law approved by the General Assembly that ties MTA fares to inflation. Indeed, the press release emphasizes the point, calling the increase both “mandated” and “required by the Maryland General Assembly” — in the same sentence (presumably the redundancy is to make clear that the current governor had nothing to do with it).

What the MTA’s brief description fails to do, however, is provide proper historical context. Why in the world did state lawmakers mandate higher MTA fares? Did they not appreciate how vital affordable transit is for low-income urban neighborhoods where transportation alternatives are few and money to pay for them is scarce? Were they really so money-grubbing that they’d ignore the importance of connecting the city’s unemployed to local job opportunities? Why did they single out Baltimore and not other transit centers?

The answer can be reduced to three words: The Red Line.

That’s right. The upcoming fare increase is yet more salt in the wound for Baltimore related to Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision in 2015 to cancel the $2.9 billion Red Line, the 14.5-mile east-west light rail system that would have connected Woodlawn to downtown Baltimore to Johns Hopkins Bayview. The 2013 legislation, properly known as The Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013, could also be described as Maryland’s last gas tax increase. It not only raised the state’s motor fuel tax but tied future rates to inflation. Baltimore was set to become a big beneficiary of that legislation thanks to the Red Line, so to appease fellow lawmakers, the city’s delegation in Annapolis agreed to add an inflation-triggered increase in MTA fares like the one the legislation tacked on to the gas tax (as well as funding the Purple Line transit project in suburban D.C.).

That fare provision was no small concession. Then-Gov. Martin O’Malley didn’t put a fare increase in the original bill, but lawmakers eventually agreed to one as part of a grand bargain that would see more money for roads in rural and suburban jurisdictions (where leaders often see no benefit for their constituents in money spent on transit) and big mass transit projects in Maryland’s two urban centers. City legislators saw a reasonable trade-off. After all, the Red Line was not only going to help commuters and attract businesses, it was certain to create hundreds of construction jobs (right about now, incidentally, if the project had stayed on track for a 2022 opening). In the end, the measure’s final 27-20 passage in the Senate relied on the support of Baltimore’s delegation, including “yea” votes from Catherine Pugh, Bill Ferguson, Joan Carter Conway, and Nathaniel McFadden and Lisa Gladden. Had those five voted differently, the bill would have died, 25-22.

All this would have been much more easily digested, of course, if in cancelling the Red Line, Governor Hogan had invested substantially in some Plan B transit alternative. But what’s happened to date, chiefly a reorganization of existing bus lines serving Baltimore and its suburbs known as “BaltimoreLink,” has been underwhelming. Ridership is lower today than it was at this point in 2016. So Baltimore residents have really taken it on the chin twice — once with the cancellation of the Red Line and now with fare increases that were supposed to help pay for the Red Line. And that’s not even counting the various road projects around the state that were funded because the Transportation Trust Fund no longer had to come up with money for the Red Line. The turnaround in Baltimore’s fortunes was so dramatic that when Governor Hogan outlined his post-Red Line transportation plans during his first term, there was an actual blank space in the map where the city should have been.

None of that history changes Baltimore’s circumstances. But if the the Hogan administration really wants to point a finger at the General Assembly to explain higher fares — the base MTA bus fare will be going up 10 cents from $1.80 to $1.90, for instance, after rising by a dime in 2017 — they ought to acknowledge their own role in shortchanging Charm City. Most Baltimoreans would happily pay the extra pennies for billions of dollars worth of transformative infrastructure investment, but that part of the deal is no longer on the table. Elections (and re-elections) have consequences, of course, but MTA riders deserve to know the full story behind their more costly commutes.

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