In the State House, one of the most common criticisms of Baltimore's bus and rail transportation networks is that they have a low "farebox recovery rate." This is a fancy way of saying that they are losing too much money — fares paid by riders aren't covering enough of their operating costs to satisfy the General Assembly.
But that's a misguided way of looking at the contributions made by mass transit to a community and region. It doesn't factor how many cars are taken off the road, how much cleaner is the air as a result of those fewer cars or how many low-income Baltimore area residents were able to get to a job site they wouldn't otherwise have been able to reach — to name but a few off-the-books benefits of public transportation.
Just 17 months ago, the Maryland Area Regional Commuter or MARC train service found a way to significantly boost its ridership on the Penn Line by adding weekend service between Baltimore and Washington. It's been a big success, allowing people who aren't necessarily regular MARC customers a chance to avoid the congested Interstate 95 corridor on their trips to Oriole Park at Camden Yards or one of the Smithsonian museums.
Ridership is up. Baltimore gets a crucial economic boost. People living in the region get a real choice about how they get around — a particularly crucial economic advantage if the city is to attract millennials, who have a notable preference for transit over cars. Yet what happened to MARC's farebox recovery rate? Officially, figures aren't yet available but experts doubt it's helped at all — as popular as it is, the weekend service isn't as crowded as weekday.
Right now, Gov. Larry Hogan is reviewing whether to allow two major transit projects, the Red and Purple lines, to move forward. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars already spent on planning and preparation for these light rail projects in Baltimore and suburban Washington, he's held them up on an issue of affordability. We think that's a flawed way of looking at them — much like the narrow focus of the farebox recovery rate.
Baltimore residents have already made considerable sacrifice to pave the way for the Red Line, the 14.1-mile-long east-west line that would connect Woodlawn with Johns Hopkins Bayview by way of downtown Baltimore. City lawmakers agreed to a higher gas tax, local governments have committed to $280 million in combined contributions, and soon, Maryland Transit Administration systems will be charging higher fares as required by the state legislature.
This city needs the economic shot in the arm that would come from the addition of the Red Line. West Baltimore, ground zero for the recent protests and unrest that arose after Freddie Gray's death, would stand to benefit from the multi-billion-dollar investment in transportation infrastructure. Thousands of jobs would be created. What a vast improvement over the yawning "road to nowhere" canyon that continues to haunt that side of the city, the result of a failed freeway project.
Alternatively, should Mr. Hogan decide to halt the Red Line in its tracks, what message will that send to a city struggling with the issues of poverty, education, health care, unemployment and lack of opportunity that the Gray case has underscored? It would say this: Maryland will take your money in the form of higher taxes and higher fares but it would rather spend it in the suburbs and rural areas to enrich the more fortunate.
But don't take our word for it, ask the business community. The Greater Baltimore Committee and others have been leading the charge for the Red Line for years. They don't want a handout, they want a level playing field. Maryland has spent far more on roads and bridges over the decades to accommodate environmentally destructive sprawl than transit advocates could ever hope to see invested in Baltimore buses or trains.
What would the Red Line do for Baltimore? A recent Transportation for America report estimates 15,000 jobs and $2.1 billion in increased economic activity. The Purple Line exceeds that with 20,000 jobs and $7 billion in economic activity, according to the non-profit organization of business, elected and civic leaders. The timing could hardly be better. For a city at risk of drowning in despair, Mr. Hogan's approval of the Red Line looks like a real life preserver.