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Is the fare increase fair?

The median household income in Baltimore is only about 56 percent of the statewide average. About one in four city residents lives below the poverty line compared to one in 10 statewide, and the unemployment rate in March was 50 percent higher than the average for the state. Given that reality, why would anyone want to make it harder for Baltimoreans to hold a job?

Yet that train has left the station in the form of higher fares for public transportation in Baltimore. Beginning June 25, most riders on the Maryland Transit Administration's bus, subway and light rail lines will pay 10 cents more on base fares. Day, weekly and monthly passes will also be adjusted accordingly.

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This comes as no surprise, of course. The General Assembly mandated periodic fare increases to match inflation as part of the gas tax increase legislation approved two years ago. It was all part of a broad political agreement that involved both sacrifice and reward — those lawmakers who supported the tax increase would agree to a fare increase, and revenue would help pay for the proposed Red and Purple light rail lines in Baltimore and suburban Washington.

Well, the fare increase is going forward, but how about those much-needed light rail lines and the multi-billion dollar investment in the economy they represent? And here's another question: Where's Gov. Larry Hogan and his crusade to lower commuting costs? He tried (unsuccessfully) to roll back the inflation adjustment in the gas tax and then (successfully) reduced tolls in time for summer. Where's the love for the bus and rail crowd — or even the MARC commuter rail customers, who are seeing a much larger increase?

The answers are: The light rail projects remain in limbo as the Hogan administration considers options from cost-cutting to scrapping them altogether, and the governor didn't seek to do anything about fares when he had the chance during the legislative session. That's hardly a surprise given that rural Republicans have been crusading for a higher "fare box recovery rate" from Baltimore's transit systems for years.

Don't get us wrong. The fare increase is reasonable — at least it was in the context of how it was originally proposed. A tax on the working poor is less than ideal (and that's what a fare increase, particularly on certain lines, essentially represents), but the base bus fare of $1.60 hasn't been raised in 12 years and is low compared to peer cities. Raising it a dime is better than the alternative of trimming routes, frequency or operating hours. Plus, what will be coming out of local pockets could end up going right back into them — the Red Line represents a $2.9 billion investment, thousands of jobs and far better access to major employment centers from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Woodlawn to Charles Center and downtown and Johns Hopkins Bayview on the east side.

In recent weeks, protesters have cried out over Governor Hogan's choice to sit on $11 million earmarked for city schools, with some justification. But that's peanuts compared to what the Red Line represents — a chance to do something truly meaningful to reduce poverty and provide fresh opportunities to individuals and businesses in the Baltimore region. Better access to jobs (and better access of potential employers to the local workforce) is a vital part of any post-Freddie Gray economic recovery.

Across the country, transit ridership is on the upswing — to 10.8 billion trips last year, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Reduced congestion, cleaner air and less fuel consumption and carbon emissions are just part of the equation. It's also an effective economic development tool. Both the Red and Purple lines help position Maryland to grow private sector jobs and make the state's economy less dependent on federal spending.

Yet the clock is ticking. A decision must be made soon or Maryland puts at risk the federal government's share of light rail's cost — $900 million for the Red Line alone, including $100 million in the current fiscal year. Plenty of other states would love to take away that money and leave Maryland in the dust. Should that happen, Baltimore won't need protesters to stop traffic and prevent people from getting to work. Mr. Hogan will have done it for them.

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