Does a fee subvert the Circulator’s mission?

Charm City’s Circulator might charge a fee in the near future.

Students of UB may be familiar with the Charm City Circulator. Started several years ago, it’s a free public bus system with stops in different Baltimore neighborhoods, predominantly in Mount Vernon, Fells Point, and the border of Federal Hill. For the budget-conscience student and city resident, the Circulator is a welcome alternative to having to pay for the MTA transit system. However, recent developments may be taking away the “free” part of the circulator in coming months.

The announcement of a potential fee for the Circulator was a part of the City Council calling for a study into the bus system’s situation, citing a desire to know who rides it and at what economic cost. Currently, the Circulator requires $7 million to operate its four routes and boasts a yearly ridership of over 4 million people. The announcement itself was met with sharp criticism from the public. This reaction in turn prompted the council to renege on the fee aspect of the study, with Councilman James Kraft stating that he would like more transparency on the matter.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake said that she wants the service to remain free, but echoes the city council on why the study is essential to the long- term operation of the Circulator. To spearhead the study, the city will pay Louis Berger Water Services Inc. $130,000 to examine the Circulator’s funding, locations, ridership, and future route extensions. Rawlings- Blake told The Baltimore Sun: “The longevity of the program depends on us getting it right. It has to work within its budget.”

The aforementioned lack of transparency for the Circulator comes from mostly the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT), who have remained quiet on the system’s finances. Adrienne Barnes, the spokesperson for the DOT, hasn’t responded to requests for the numbers behind the Circulator, as well as rumors that it’s operating at a deficit to the city’s budget. This impasse may also be one of the reasons, other than finding interested investors, why the calls for potential route extensions haven’t progressed within the past several years.

These route extensions would greatly enhance the ridership of the Circulator, but the DOT would have to begin a discussion with the city’s officials and organizations (such as the Downtown Partnership), on what the limits are for the Circulator. The Partnership views downtown Baltimore as a rapidly growing area that greatly benefits from the Circulator, but insists that the system isn’t a replacement for the city’s extensive MTA system.

Vice President of the Downtown Partnership, Michael Evitts, feels that the Circulator can be a better- implemented public transit option, once the current lack of transparency is done away with and maybe an “advisory board” instituted in the future. The study is slated to begin during the summer of 2015.

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