By Tazeen Ahmad and Amirah Al Idrus
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BALTIMORE — While the state’s MTA buses labor along their old routes, Baltimoreans at City Hall and on college campuses became so dissatisfied with the service that they created their own expensive transit systems to carry riders for free around downtown and from campus to campus.
The Charm City Circulator, with its sleek buses crisscrossing downtown, costs the city about $7 million a year. Local colleges spend several millions more to operate their own shuttle buses. The JHMI shuttle, just one of the routes run by the Johns Hopkins University, costs the school $2 million annually. And some business groups provide shuttle services for their workers, to fill gaps in mass transit lines.
This means taxpayers are left contributing to both the state MTA and to the city-run bus system.
But city officials and college administrators say they had to step up to create more routes and more reliable service that the Maryland Transit Administration could not.
“There was a serious problem in terms of transportation in Baltimore,” said City Councilwoman Rochelle Spector. “We needed to supplement what MTA was offering.”
City officials say that while MTA does a great job of bringing people into the city from suburbs, the current MTA routes were not doing a good job getting them circulated through the city.
Spector said that she rides the Circulator often and it is always full. That, she says, speaks for itself.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake agrees.
“Part of the work that we are doing with our Circulator is showing MTA that if you create a bus system that takes people from where they are to where they want to go, they will use it,” the mayor said.
Rawlings-Blake hopes the Circulator’s high ridership numbers will mean that the MTA will have “no choice but to be more responsive.”
Anirban Basu, an economist with the Sage Policy Group, Inc., says the Circulator “has a significant economic impact and is one of the more efficient and productive endeavors in which the city engages.”
Basu said that though the city is strapped for cash, it makes sense to provide the public services as efficiently as possible.
“For the city to have developed a system that people actually utilize, a system that did not require significant physical upgrades, I think it is pretty impressive,” Basu said.
College administrators also felt students needed different routes and better service.
The Collegetown Network, a consortium of local colleges, received a grant to investigate why Baltimore was not hailed as a great college town, like Boston or Berkeley.
“We found that transportation was a major barrier to students interacting with the city,” said Kristen McGuire, the executive director of the Collegetown Network.
Students were not getting to internships or to the city’s art and culture with the MTA, McGuire said.
The Collegetown shuttle started running in 2000, as “a Band-Aid” for the transportation problem, McGuire said. In its first year of operation, the Collegetown shuttle had about 12,000 rides. In the 2012-2013 academic year, it had more than 83,000 rides.
And this year, in November alone, the Circulator had an average of 11,300 rides a day. Spector said it is used both by residents and visitors to the city.
Everyone wants the Circulator to come to their neighborhood because it works, said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.
“They have 10-minute headways,” Clarke said, referring to the average time between vehicles traveling in the same direction on the same route. “They stick to their schedules,” she said.
“Now, of course, it’s free, but that’s not really the issue,” Clarke said. “It’s there. It’s clean. It’s safe. It’s reliable.”
City leaders say they can operate certain routes more efficiently and more economically than the MTA. They would like to expand the Circulator routes.
Then, the MTA could reduce those routes and transfer the savings to the city, said Barry Robinson, chief of transit marine services for Baltimore, whose office manages the Circulator contracts for the city.
“The cost per rider for the Charm City Circulator is about $2. Conversely, the cost per rider on the MTA is way the hell out there. I don’t know what it is,” Robinson said.
But an MTA spokesman says that comparison is too simple, like “comparing apples to oranges.”
Paul Shepard, deputy chief public information officer at MTA says the Circulator runs relatively few routes in “high demand corridors” and that the cost per rider for the Circulator is lower as it is spread out over a larger number of riders per trip.
“Meanwhile, the MTA provides bus service throughout the city and deep into the surrounding counties,” he said.
And the Circulator doesn’t have to collect fares, which Shepard says is a “costly exercise.”
Riders of the Circulator say they prefer the ride to the MTA.
“It is great that [the Circulator] is free,” said Brooke Chambers, 19, who rides the Circulator every day to work downtown
“You have to pay $1.60 to ride the MTA bus and that is not as nice and not as clean. Bus drivers are a lot friendlier on the Circulator and it is always on time.”
But all has not been perfect for Circulator riders.
On the afternoon before Thanksgiving, four students were stabbed on a Circulator bus after provoking another passenger, police said. The injuries were minor, police said.
Spector says she expects that city will take action to boost security.
“I am sure that the addition of cameras and possibly having security riding on the buses [will be considered] so they will nip it in the bud, because you can’t have a perception that it is not safe,” Spector said.
City officials are aware of safety issues and acknowledge that often tourists on the Circulator’s Orange Route visiting the B&O Railroad Museum find themselves waiting for or riding the bus with people heading to a methadone clinic or another drug treatment clinic opposite the historic site.
Riders on the Green Route may find themselves sitting next to a homeless person trying to escape the bone-chilling winter or sweltering summer for a few hours.
And Purple Route riders can be overwhelmed with rowdy students from Digital Harbor High School, who crowd the Circulator going to and from school instead of using the free passes that the school system gives them to ride the MTA.
Baltimore City Public Schools spends about $5.7 million each year to provide students with MTA bus passes. And city officials wish that students used the MTA buses instead of the free Circulator, Robinson said.
The city explored legal action. “But our hands are tied in the matter,” Robinson said.
The Charm City Circulator is paid for mostly with revenue generated from the 2008 increase to the parking tax. Funds also come from advertising and contributions from developers, businesses and other organizations and individuals from areas it serves.
Veolia Transportation Services Inc. won the city contract to operate the buses routes and the Water Taxi Inc. has the contract for water taxi commuter routes.
Veolia also operates the Collegetown Shuttle, which serves six local colleges and stops including Penn Station and Towson Town Center.
The city is planning to expand the Charm City Circulator Purple Route from its northernmost stop, Penn Station, up to University Parkway, adding 1.5 miles to the route.
It is seeking help from colleges to fund the expansion. But Robinson worries that schools won’t pay for the expansion and will shut down their own shuttle systems once they get Circulator service.
“Hopkins will be the primary recipient of this extended service and they have so far not made an commitment to assist us in funding,” Robinson said.
There is a need for the expansion, McGuire said. The Collegetown shuttle is “almost always at capacity,” and the Collegetown Network welcomes the Circulator expansion to complement the existing Collegetown routes.