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The problems with the MTA public transportation system

A north bound MTA light rail train travels up Howard Street at Mulberry in Downtown Baltimore.
A north bound MTA light rail train travels up Howard Street at Mulberry in Downtown Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

After six years living in Southern California, I recently returned to Charm City. One thing California does not have compared to Baltimore is efficient public transportation. As someone with epilepsy who cannot drive, I was excited to return to Baltimore and use the tried and true services of the Maryland Transit Administration system. Whether inside the confines of the city or on its periphery, you can get most places you’re going without much hassle.

But the MTA system is not perfect. The ticketing machines frequently malfunction. And from my vantage point riding the light rail several times a week, MTA police seem to target the poor, African Americans and disabled with fines they are unable to pay.

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One day I tried using my debit card to purchase a ticket at the Baltimore Highlands light rail station and none of the machines would allow debit card purchases. I had to go home, dig for change and wound up not making a doctor’s appointment. The next day I went to the same station and tried purchasing a ticket. I had my exact fare ready to go — a dollar bill and ninety cents in mixed coins. I went to enter my coins and the slot was obstructed and no coins were being accepted. I didn’t see the sign saying exact fare was required and no coins would be accepted until I had crossed the tracks. Frustrated, I was forced to hop onto my train without a ticket. I was lucky that day a ticketing enforcement officer wasn’t around.

On another day, I had a mix of cash. I entered one dollar and seventy cents in silver change, and then I fed the machine twenty cents in pennies. I was wearing earbuds in my ears, so I didn’t notice the sound of my pennies being spit out by the machine. All of my copper change was rejected. After mumbling a few obscenities to myself, I pressed the return fare button to have my change returned. Once again, I got on and avoided a citation.

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I am sure I am not the only one who has been inconvenienced by the faulty machinery. I wonder how many others have gotten on the train when they couldn’t pay because they couldn’t afford to be late for work or to miss picking up a child from daycare. And how many have gotten fines because of it? Fines they couldn’t afford to pay.

Because let’s face it. MTA buses, subways and the light rail are used by many people of color, the poor and the disabled. Yes, well-to-do, white suburban commuters do use the system, but it’s a lot of brown faces. Recently, I watched as a ticketing enforcement agent wrote citations for people without valid tickets The recipients did not appear to be wealthy citizens. Why waste time writing tickets for fines that ranged from $50 to $200 to citizens who could not afford a one-way fare of $1.90? Why put the poor under further duress by writing a ticket equal to an entire day’s work if not more? Not to mention the humiliation. The fines are essentially a penalty for being poor that also mounts to public shaming.

The MTA needs to upgrade and maintain the machines so that they stop preventing people from paying. The debit card readers are old and leave card scratches. The coin return is wide and awkward spraying coins over a slot that is at my shins and over a foot in length. I always seem to pick-up extra coins meaning someone else missed a few coins of their own. I guess this is the MTA’s version of “give a penny, take a penny." Or better yet, “give a nickel, take a nickel,” because the machines do not accept pennies.

Recently, I rode the train on the day of a Ravens game. The light rail was packed from the front car to the caboose with white folks being carried from the suburbs and dropped off at the door at M&T Bank Stadium. So convenient for them, and a way to save money by not having to park in the expensive garages near the stadium. I didn’t see too much ticketing that day.

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They should have the same amount of ticketing officers they do on any other day. Lay off the brown people and the poor and the disabled who are daily riders. In the eyes of this white, suburban white collar adult, it most certainly is a tax on the poor.

Justin Cuffley (jc.edward2910@gmail.com) is a regulatory affairs specialist who lives in Baltimore

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