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Politicsby Danielle Sweeney5:35 pmMay 6, 20150

A band aid to stop the bleeding, but no road map for the Circulator’s future

ANALYSIS: Stop-gap measures to reduce the costs of Circulator service – including elimination of the Banner Route – will not solve the traffic problems in the city’s fast-growing waterfront communities

Above: A Charm City Circulator rolls down Key Highway. (Danielle SDweeney)

Today’s approval by the Board of Estimates of a plan to reduce service on the Charm City Circulator answers the immediate question about the free bus system’s future, but provides no long-term solutions for its survival.

The board ratified a Department of Transportation decision to terminate the Banner Route, which connects Fort McHenry to the Inner Harbor and provides service to several South Baltimore communities, some time in fiscal 2016, which starts on July 1.

The Orange Route, connecting Hollins Market and Harbor East, and the Green Route, connecting City Hall to Fells Point and the Johns Hopkins Hospital, would each lose a few buses, increasing the wait time for passengers.

At the same time, the Purple Route, connecting Federal Hill to Penn Station, would be extended to 33rd Street in Charles Village, fulfilling a promise made by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake three years ago.

Today’s decision was based on a still-unreleased $130,000 study of Circulator operations by consultant Louis Berger Water Services and represents a difficult compromise.

It keeps the Circulator’s original three routes without charging a fare or increasing the city garage parking tax – the first impractical, the second unpopular – two options previously proposed by the Department of Finance.

At the same time, the Rawlings-Blake administration will earmark $2.2 million in general funds for a bus replacement program and $700,000 to start paying down the system’s $11.6 million accumulated operating deficit.

No Banner

The Banner Route was originally underwritten, courtesy of a $1.2 million federal grant, to support the War of 1812 Bicentennial events at Fort McHenry. Those funds were used to buy several hybrid electric buses.

While operating in a small geographic area, the Banner links some of the city’s most parking-challenged neighborhoods with downtown. It serves high school students, a large senior apartment complex and a growing number of families who have settled on the South Baltimore peninsula.

Councilman Eric Costello, who represents the 11th district where the buses run, expressed his disappointment.

“A reduction in service is one thing,” he told The Brew yesterday, “but eliminating the service altogether is another matter. My focus is on keeping the route in some form.” He said he is worried that seniors could be cut off from access to grocery stores and health care.

If the Banner is discontinued – as appears likely because the City Council cannot add funds to the city’s budget once it is approved by the Board of Estimates – the route’s buses would be added to the Circulator fleet and serve the Purple Route’s expansion to Charles Village.

Other Options For Funding

Whether this year’s financial commitment of $2.9 million is a band aid to get through the year – or a sign of the city’s future plans to permanently, if quietly, subsidize the service – is unclear.

The city recently extended the contract for the Circulator’s operator, Veolia Transportation, for 18 months and has said it would re-bid the contract in an effort to save money. DOT says that by eliminating the Banner Route and cutting service on the Orange and Green lines, it hopes to reduce yearly operating costs by $3 million.

So far, the city has not publicly discussed new sources of revenue for the service, even though the Department of Finance recommended just that in a report on the Circulator last November.

Specifically, the report encouraged the city to explore funding partnerships with city agencies like Visit Baltimore, to “leverage resources” for the bus service, the Department of Finance report stated.

“Visit Baltimore’s appropriation has grown by a significant amount over the past five fiscal years, as the organization receives 40% of the City’s gross hotel tax revenue. Given the increase to the budget, Visit Baltimore may have more opportunity to contribute now than in years past.”

The report also recommended that DOT look into funding relationships with the Downtown Partnership, Waterfront Partnership, and other businesses and organizations that benefit from the economic impact of transporting tourists, residents, students and commuters around the central city. (All of the Circulator lines stop at major cultural and tourist attractions.)

Many of the city’s new and planned developments and apartment complexes at Harbor Point, Locust Point, South Baltimore, Mt. Vernon, Station North and Charles Village are located on or near current Circulator routes or the planned 33rd Street extension.

There is no indication, however, that such partnerships are being pursued.

 A Vision for the Future

While the Circulator has its critics – and a colorful history of scandal even by Baltimore standards (here and here) – it is considered to be a success by its riders, especially when compared to the state-run MTA bus system. Indeed, the Circulator is the only bus that some residents are willing to ride because of its comparative punctuality and predictability.

As Baltimore’s waterfront communities, the center of its non-commercial tax base, become more densely populated, car-clogged and gridlocked, a stable and functional bus system is paramount.

So far, the MTA has not provided it. Yet the city does not have a long-term vision for the Circulator, or at least not a vision that’s been publicly described by the agency that runs the buses.

Municipal government might not want to get into the “bus business,” but it already is. Stopping the Circulator’s financial hemorrhaging is only the beginning. The ad-hoc expansion and contraction of routes based on the availability of federal grants and parking garage tax revenues is not a prescription for success.

Finding out what residents really want the Circulator to do is a first step in developing a system that the public accepts and uses. Relating the system to other mass transit choices and connections is a necessary follow-up. A dedicated bus trust fund is a third move essential for the Circulator’s future.

To get the wheels rolling, release of the full consultant’s report would also be helpful.

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