Thursday, October 8, 2015

Why the Circulator should not use the City's general funds

Three years after announcing it, this week the Mayor celebrated the extension of the Purple route of the city run Charm City Circulator from Penn Station all the way to Johns Hopkins University at 33rd Street.

Councilwoman Mary-Pat Clarke and community activist Sandy Sparks are happy about finally having this local and free transit option in place, something they had dreamed about as a local streetcar for years. So all is good?
Mayor Rawlings Blake at the Purple Line extension
celebration this week (WBAL)
"We're a neighborhood that hopefully will be moving toward having fewer cars. We're also a very dense neighborhood, so it makes sense to have this service in our neighborhood," (Sandy Sparks, president of the Charles Village Civic Association. WBAL).
Not quite, there is the pesky issue of money and the even peskier one about a clear definition of what service the City provides with the Circulator and what the MTA with the #3, 11, 61 and 64 buses running in the same corridor. Both issues remain unresolved.

The new route map shows that the Purple Line is by far the longest

Regarding the cost: The current system was invented as a self sustaining system intended not to be fueled by general funds but by a parking tax surcharge and the support of property owners /businesses/ stakeholders who benefit from the service on a specific route. The funding mechanism worked as a win-win proposition: Take peripheral parkers to their workplaces and save them money in the process since they can park in a cheaper garage and by doing so fill empty peripheral garages that were under-performing. There are public benefits as well:
  • No need to build more parking garages in valuable core areas 
  • Downtown residents and workers can reach downtown destinations for lunch or shopping without a car
  • Tourists can go beyond the Inner Harbor, benefiting businesses in Mt Vernon, Federal Hill, Hollins Market and East Baltimore
·         All these benefits also describe a very clear but limited transit purpose: none of this is directly competing with MTA's service. No downtown worker would take an MTA bus to go to lunch, hardly any tourist would board one to visit the Walters or barely any resident would go from a new apartment building to Harbor East for shopping by using MTA.
The current model Circulator bus is a full size 40' bus entirely
comparable to a MTA bus, except MTA runs hybrid diesel-electric models

But with the Circulator wildly popular (its daily ridership of 13,000 is a vocal and influential crowd that, however, is totally dwarfed by the 200,000 people on MTA buses each day) and the MTA in a perpetual image slump, the calls for more and more Circulator service have been building. And with those calls the confusion what the Circulator really is increased, in spite if its clear name.

With an over $11 million accumulated deficit (the annual operating cost is about $7 million), the promise of a self sustaining system has not been fulfilled.

It is understandable that the Mayor didn't want to cut the Banner route that lost its one-time War of 1812-grant this year nor revoke the Purple extension promise in the wake of the aborted of the Red Line. That would have been too much bad transit news in one season!

Still, the question remains: Is subsidizing the Circulator the right use of scarce City general funds? Kirby Fowler of the Downtown Partnership thinks yes, I don't. Too many other things are in need of urgent city funding to use those valuable dollars for something that the MTA should do better in the first place, namely running buses over a longer distance.

The Johns Hopkins bus is a recycled transit bus and serves
only the JHU "family"

The solution: The $500,000 publicly named as the cost for adding another bus to run the Purple Line to Hopkins University should be funded by Hopkins, the main beneficiary! If Hopkins would cut its own bus circulator that connects the Hospital with the university and let folks use the Charm City bus instead, Hopkins would not even have to spend more money! (Their annual cost for the Hopkins bus is provided as $2 million).

It makes no sense that Charles Street has several MTA lines, a City Circulator, a Hopkins, a UB and a UMB bus all running in the same corridor! That money should be pooled into the Charm City bus system, a win-win all around. The universities save money, the public gets better service and the City saves its general funds to invests in neighborhoods that really need it.

And the Banner Route? There are plenty powerful and rich beneficiaries of a robust transit connection to Locust Point, Under Armour,  that whole McHenry Row development and soon also Bozzutto.

That leaves the relationship between Circulator and MTA bus as a matter still unresolved. One can hope that the Hogan administration will actually deliver on its many promises to overhaul the MTA bus system. If that goes well, the call for ever more Charm City bus service should subside. While the MTA is at it, it can modify its routes to avoid the overlap with the Circulator where it is obvious. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

SUN article about Purple line extension
Charm City Circulator, Campus Shuttles an Alternative to MTA Buses

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