General Assembly analysts say state wrongly increased transit fares

The MTA improperly raised bus, subway and light rail fares in Baltimore, legislative analysts said.

The Maryland Transit Administration improperly raised fares for bus, subway and light-rail riders in the Baltimore region and should roll them back to the previous level, legislative analysts said Wednesday.

The Hogan administration vehemently disagreed, contending that last month's 10-cent increase in the MTA base fare to $1.70 should stand.

The clash came as state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn and the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services gave Annapolis lawmakers conflicting interpretations of the requirements of a 2013 law that raised Maryland's gas tax. The law required future increases in transit fares based on increases in the Consumer Price Index.

Steven McCulloch, a transportation analyst for the nonpartisan legislative agency, said the MTA misinterpreted the law and improperly increased the $1.60 fare that had been in place for 12 years. He said his conclusion was based on clear instructions the General Assembly prescribed in 2013.

"The plain reading is the best reading of the statute," McCulloch said at a hearing Wednesday before two House subcommittees. "I just don't see how these new fares comply with the statute in its specific calculation."

But Rahn strongly disagreed with that interpretation, calling it "nonsensical."

"The law must be construed in its entirety," Rahn said. He said the law clearly contemplates an increase in fares this year rounded to the nearest dime.

The dispute comes down to a disagreement about rounding and the choice of figure to use to calculate inflation. Using the MTA's reasoning, the new fare was properly rounded up to $1.70. But using the legislative analysts' calculation, the fare should have stayed where it was.

Ed Cohen, a retired math teacher and longtime transit advocate, said the legislative analysts were correct because the MTA reached $1.70 by rounding up twice — something the MTA denies it did.

"To me it's just not following the rules of math. You can't double-round," he said.

But Cohen, acting chairman of the MTA's Citizens Advisory Committee, said he hasn't heard many complaints from fellow riders about the dime increase.

What they're upset about, he said, is paying more for service that remains inadequate.

McCulloch also faulted the MTA for the decisions it made on raising MARC and commuter bus fares. He said in some cases the agency ignored the law by raising ticket prices to the nearest dollar when it didn't have to. The analyst also said the MTA violated the law by increasing monthly and weekly passes on MARC by as much as 67 percent and on commuter buses by as much as 35 percent.

The legislative services department said the proposed increases should have triggered public hearings because they exceeded a simple inflation adjustment. Administration officials disagreed. They insisted fares were raised by the correct amounts, based solely on inflation, and that hearings weren't required.

Rahn pointed to another provision in the law requiring the MTA to collect at least 35 percent of its revenues from the fares paid by its passengers — so-called "farebox" recovery. He said that reflected the clear intent of the legislature that fares be increased until they achieved that level.

McCulloch said there were "obvious contradictions" in the law but insisted that other language in the bill limited the increases that could occur when fares are reset every two years. Even with the bump to $1.70, the MTA is raising far less than the 35 percent standard. Cohen said reaching that level would require an increase to $2.50.

After a lengthy debate on the law, two state delegates who are also lawyers came down on different sides.

Del. Brooke E. Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, said the legislative analysts made the better case. She said she wants an opinion from the attorney general's office on whether the increases were legal and would not be surprised if transit advocates filed suit.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican, said the MTA was correct.

"It's completely clear," Flanagan said. He said there would be no controversy "if we had a Democratic governor. This is totally political."

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