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Transportationby Mark Reutter8:14 amJan 27, 20210

Charm City Circulator is thrown a financial lifeline

Federal CARES Act money will be used to shore up Baltimore’s hard-pressed free bus system

Above: The bus shuttle service saw a steep decline in ridership long before the pandemic hit. (Facebook)

The Maryland Department of Transportation is giving $11.9 million in federal CARES Act funds to the Charm City Circulator, Baltimore’s struggling free bus service.

The money comes through an amended agreement between the state and Baltimore’s Department of Transportation, which is set to be approved today by Mayor Brandon Scott and the Board of Estimates.

The award is expected to pay for roughly half of the system’s operating costs in 2020 and 2021 as well as subsidize the Harbor Connector, a city-run water taxi serving Canton, Tide Point and Federal Hill.

High Hopes

Started in 2008 by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon to reduce downtown traffic congestion and connect remote parking lots to visitor destinations around the Inner Harbor, the Circulator originally ran east-west along Pratt and Lombard streets and north-south between Federal Hill and Penn Station.

Deploying hybrid electric buses, it was environmentally friendly. With 10-15 minute headways, it was frequent. And with dedicated funding from a portion of parking tax revenues, it was apparently solvent.

The shuttle service was an immediate hit.

Charm City Circulator rolls down Key Highway. (Danielle Sweeney)

“Fast. Friendly. Free.” A hybrid Charm City bus rolls through South Baltimore in better days. (Danielle Sweeney, 2014)

It boasted 2.1 million single-trip riders in 2011. With more routes added, ridership grew to 4.35 million in 2014 when the system veered badly off course.

In rapid succession:

• the hybrid motors inside the festively vinyl-wrapped buses broke down, forcing many out of service,

• DOT’s Circulator boss, Barry S. Robinson, was indicted for taking bribes and selling off surplus bus shelters.

• a Bureau of the Budget report revealed that the system had run up $11 million in deficits going back to 2009.

As The Brew noted at the time, the city was urged by a consultant to cut the Circulator’s scope or to charge a fee to riders. Instead, the Rawlings-Blake administration kept the popular Banner Route running in South Baltimore and extended the Purple Route north to Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus.

In 2015, DOT's former transit chief, Barry Robinson, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for accepting $90,000 in bribes. Including a scheme to sell $250,000 worth of stored Circulator bus shelters.

DOT’s former Circulator chief, Barry Robinson, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for accepting $90,000 in bribes and stealing bus shelters. (Brew file photo)

Slumping Ridership

Since then, the system has been on a downward slope, beset by slumping patronage while a rising chorus of critics accused the program of unfairly benefiting “White L” communities in north and south Baltimore, while bypassing poorer Black communities to the east and west, who had to make do with state-operated MTA buses – and pay for the privilege.

Ridership fell to 3.4 million in 2017, then dropped further to 1.3 million in 2019.

By then, DOT had parted ways, acrimoniously, with its longtime vendor Transdev and signed a three-year, $26 million contract with a Rockville-based outfit called RMA Worldwide Chauffeured Transportation.

The move did little to improve service or to stanch the loss of passengers. And the coronavirus pandemic that swept across the city and nation last spring only added to the system’s long-term woes.

The latest figure coming from DOT spokesman German Vigil – 1,083,603 single rides for the year ending last June 30 – marks a 75% decline from the Circulator’s high water mark.

To cut corners, DOT has “paused” the acquisition of four new buses, which has upended its stated goal of returning service to 15-20 minute headways.

Riders complain on social media of long gaps in service and no reliable schedule. An assortment of leased black-or-white RMA mini-buses and branded Circulator vehicles will show up at street corners when they show up.

(UPDATE: The mayor’s office says the four-bus order was “delayed for contractual reasons,” and DOT still plans to purchase six new Circulator buses this year.)

Last May, several drivers told WMAR News that the fleet was not being properly disinfected to combat Covid-19 and working conditions were poor. An RMA official denied the charges and said the company was following CDC guidelines.

Equity Question

As a councilman, Brandon Scott criticized the Circulator and introduced legislation that requires city programs to undergo an equity analysis.

The law compels agencies, such as DOT, to “develop policies, practices and strategic investments to reverse disparity trends based on race, gender or income.” Each agency is required to implement an equity action plan.

Brandon Scott tweets in 2018 about the equity of the free service during the city's dispute with Transdev over alleged overcharges.

Brandon Scott tweets in 2018 about the equity of the free bus service amid the Pugh administration’s legal wrangling with Transdev.

As the incoming mayor, Scott had not yet articulated a plan to reconfigure, revive, downsize or charge fares for the bus service.

A 25-member Transportation and Infrastructure Transition Team, co-chaired by Morgan State University Professor Celeste Chavis and Bikemore Executive Director Liz Cornish, is now formulating plans for the mayor, according to his spokesperson, Stefanie Mavronis.

“He will certainly be taking a careful look at the Circulator in terms of equity,” she said last night. “He will consider it in terms of overall transportation in our city and how people can reliably get to work.”

As soon as next week, the mayor’s office hopes to release the recommendations of the transition teams.

Some rider comments about Circulator service given to former Brew reporter Danielle Sweeney.

Some comments by riders of their Circulator experiences given to former Brew reporter Danielle Sweeney.

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