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Should Maryland transit systems be required to cover a share of their operating costs with fares?

A file photo shows MARC train riders walking to catch a Brunswick line train in Gaithersburg. MARC is the only Maryland transit system that meets a state requirement that fare revenue cover 35 percent of each system’s operating costs. (Anthony Castellano/The Gazette)

Maryland lawmakers are considering whether to repeal a state requirement that transit systems cover at least 35 percent of their operating costs through passenger revenues, a mandate that critics say hurts bus and light-rail service in Baltimore.

A similar proposal died in the General Assembly last year. Supporters have retooled the bill this year by adding five performance measures, in place of the revenue requirement, that they say would better ensure that transit systems are reliable, fast, frequent and well-used.

The MTA has opposed the legislation. The agency took no position on a similar bill last year that would have only abolished the 35 percent requirement, but said the new proposal would add performance standards that would be “unprecedented” and wouldn’t meet transit industry standards.

Under current law, the Maryland Transit Administration’s systems must cover at least 35 percent of their operating costs through farebox revenue. The MARC commuter rail system is the only one that does.

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The commuter rail system, which connects downtown Washington with Baltimore, Frederick County and West Virginia, covered 44 percent of its costs in fiscal 2016, according to a state report.

Fares for Baltimore-area buses, light-rail and the Metro subway have covered about 28 percent of their operating costs.

The 35 percent requirement was designed to encourage the transit agency to establish reasonable fares and contain expenses. A Baltimore Sun editorial criticizing the requirement said it “dates to an era when rural lawmakers worried that Baltimore, with all its population and political clout, could overwhelm transportation spending” and take money from their road and bridge projects.

Other critics say it has prevented the state from making investments that could lead to better service that would attract more riders and, in turn, more revenue.

Glenn Smith, a community activist in Baltimore, said lower-income, transit-dependent residents and the communities where they live have been particularly hard hit because the state has tried to limit costs by “letting the system go into a bit of disrepair.” That leaves people unable to get and keep jobs, reach medical appointments and shop in areas with more healthy food options, he said. Some residents spend about three hours daily commuting by transit, which also puts a strain on families, he said.

“The reliability isn’t there,” said Smith, co-chair of Get Maryland Moving, an advocacy group that’s supporting the bill.

Smith said the Baltimore region’s transit network isn’t well-connected, leaving people with long rides, multiple transfers and often late buses — reasons he said residents needed the light-rail Red Line project, which Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) cancelled in 2015.

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Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said the fact that Baltimore-area transit systems haven’t hit the 35 percent mark shows that the requirement has been ineffective and counterproductive.

“It says ‘MTA shall recover 35 percent,’ but that hasn’t made it happen,” O’Malley said. “It prevents MTA from making the kind of investments necessary to grow ridership and get to that ratio over time.”

He added, “It’s always important to remind ourselves that there’s no farebox recovery ratio for roads.”

In a letter to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee dated Feb. 22, the MTA did not address the proposal to repeal the 35 percent requirement. However, the MTA said it would oppose the legislation because of the five performance standards it would add, including that at least 85 percent of all passenger trips be on time and that the average travel time for trips in the “core service area” take 45 minutes or less. It also would require that at least 15 percent of jobs in the greater Baltimore area be reachable by transit within 60 minutes.

Some of the factors are outside of the MTA’s control, the agency said. “Additionally,” the letter said, “placing customer service measures in statute is unprecedented and could hinder MTA’s ability to adjust its transit network to meet the transportation needs of its patrons.”

The MTA’s testimony for similar legislation last year suggested a 35 percent farebox recovery was unattainable. The MTA noted that all transit systems require operating subsidies, adding that “MTA consistently performs well when compared to its peer transit systems.”

Because so many of the transit systems’ costs — union labor, diesel fuel, and electricity — are fixed, reaching a 35 percent farebox recovery would require cutting service or increasing fares beyond the typical increase in the consumer price index, the agency has said in reports. Both approaches would hit hard for lower-income people and the 55 percent of Baltimore riders who depend on transit as their primary way of getting around, the agencies have said.

The MTA has said it is working on a new Baltimore Link system that will redesign current bus routes and better connect other transit lines.