Thursday, December 11, 2008

What Hard Times Look Like

Stories from Baltimore and St. Louis point to what's in store for transit riders in the era of tight budgets and limited government support. It isn't pretty, and it could force some commuters back on the highways.

In Maryland, eight members of the Baltimore City Council have written to Gov. Martin O'Malley asking that he intervene to prevent MARC from eliminating two late-night trains on the Penn Line from Washington to Baltimore, which runs over Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, next month.

MARC cites low ridership, but the trains are a lifeline for commuters who occasionally have to work late or stay in Washington for other reasons.

Says Rolf Schmitt, a 58-year old federal employee who commutes by train:
"I'm grateful it's there," he said. "There are occasional nights you have to work late."

Without the 10:05 departure, the last train of the evening would leave Union Station at 8:40 p.m. - a time that could rule out, among other things, many after-work dinners in Washington.
Schmitt says without the late night trains he'd have to drive and pay for parking on those days he stays late.

In recent years, Baltimore has experienced an influx of people moving there and commuting to Washington because of its lower housing costs. This has helped revitalize historic neighborhoods like Federal Hill and Fells Point. Officials fear loss of the late-night trains could diminish the Charm City's appeal for people who work in Washington.

MARC also plans to discontinue next month the last of its three trains from Washington to Martinsburg, WV, west of Brunswick, even though ridership from West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle is up 7.5 percent year-over-year.

Meanwhile, transit officials in St. Louis anticipate losing 9.5 million riders next year - almost 20 percent of the Metro system's total ridership - when it implements service reductions next month. Yesterday, they unveiled a long-awaited service reduction proposal aimed at trimming $36.7 million a year from future Metro operating budgets.

The cuts would put Metro buses out of reach to 362,000 St. Louis County residents and 6,000 St. Louis residents whose neighborhoods are currently within a quarter-mile of a bus. Today, about 1.3 million city and county residents have such access to buses.

The system's MetroLink light rail line would not be spared. While both routes would continue to be served one line would be reduced to a shuttle service during off-peak hours.

The cuts came after St. Louis County voters rejected a proposal to shore up Metro's finances by seeking a half-cent sales tax increase in November. In addition to the service reductions, Metro's customers face a 25 cents fare hike January 1. A second wave of fare increases will take effect in July 2010.

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