Public service often comes down to stretching finite resources to solve as many problems as possible – even more so as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens budget shortfalls in local governments around the U.S.
Transit systems, in particular, are facing uncertainty with declining ridership and lack of investment even before the pandemic. But, the State of Maryland offers an example of a promising solution that could help other jurisdictions use resources more efficiently to boost transit systems.
One way that transit systems can gain a consistent group of riders is by extending transit to large employers in the regions that they serve. Many transit agencies have partnered with large institutions to provide employees with subsidized monthly passes. This type of partnership is common with many colleges and universities.
Maryland’s state government adopted one such program in 2001, under the administration of former Governor Parris Glendening, when it created a program for executive branch employees to use local Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) service in greater Baltimore for free. Employees ride free just by showing their state ID.
During its 2019 session, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill that codified this unofficial fringe benefit for all executive branch employees and employees of the state university system. The bill also requires the Maryland Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) to study the cost and feasibility of extending the benefit to other transit services. The original bill included a requirement that the MTA study feasibility of extending the benefit to legislative and judicial branch staff, but that language was struck from the bill. The study that DBM and MDOT was required to conduct was due on January 1, 2020 but hasn’t been submitted yet. Without this study, it is unknown how many employees are making use of the benefit and its cost.
A similar program has been considered for Baltimore City employees, but has not yet come to fruition.
Last year, the chair of the Baltimore City Council’s transportation committee, Ryan Dorsey, proposed ending the city subsidizing free parking for some of its employees. Currently, Baltimore City spends $850,000 annually for parking, funds that serve only 600 of roughly 13,000 city employees. If this benefit were eliminated, and the City were able to secure a 12% discount from the MTA, then all 13,000 city employees would be eligible and able to receive a monthly transit pass.
Councilman Dorsey hopes that if his plan were to move forward, Baltimore City could serve as a pilot for other large regional employers to create similar programs.
As transit agencies and transit advocates worry about bringing ridership back and finding ways to plug funding gaps in the wake of COVID-19, transit benefit programs could help address both issues.