Monday, March 20, 2017

What to do with the Circulator?

The Charm City Circulator is like the entry drug for transit (Kirby Fowler, Downtown Partnership)
We are engaged in the conversations with Amtrak and other transportation modes including our own Circulator to eliminate the gaps in transportation needs for the citizens of Baltimore to get to and from employment opportunities. (Catherine Pugh, State of the City 2017)
Re-evaluate and restructure the successful but fiscally unsustainable Charm City Circulator services, including clarifying its mission and limiting its geographic area, and identifying a sustainable funding source. (Transition Report)
The Purple Line was extended in 2016
In many ways, the Baltimore Charm City Circulator is expected to be something like a pig that provides not only meat but also wool, milk and eggs. The Circulator is supposed to heighten equity and eliminate transportation gaps (the Mayor's vision), it is supposed to bring users to transit that wouldn't otherwise never step into a bus (Fowler's vision) and it is supposed to be self supporting and financially sustainable. (Transition team for transportation).

The State supports the Circulator with $3 million a year but would like the City to clearly delineate the purpose of it from MTA's own transit service. The Downtown Partnership's Fowler thinks that the City could make up for some of MTA's service deficiencies and that transit is a basic service that should paid to some extent by the City's general fund.  The Mayor, too, thinks that the City-owned bus should fill gaps that MTA leaves, but sees that funding the bus from the general fund is tough when even after-school bus trips had to be funded by a private donation.

The City's own bus system (operated by TransDev which used to be Veolia) costs over $11 million to run per year but takes in only $8-9 million, leaving an about 20% shortfall every year that has already accumulated to a total north of the $11.6 deficit. Some of the deficit has to to do with bad decisions at the original bus procurement and ongoing bus replacement cost (A single bus costs over $700,000).  As a result of a 2014 financial report some Charm City services were reduced (Green Line, Banner Line) reducing bus frequency; the Purple Line was extended from Penn Station to Hopkins University.

The lion share of the revenue comes from a 20% parking tax levied on all Baltimore City garage and lot parking, an idea born in 2008. The genius of this concept is that it aims at reducing automobile usage in downtown by increasing the parking cost which is naturally higher in downtown than in outlying areas. The hope was and is, that drivers would park in cheaper outlying underutilized garages and use the free Circulator for the last leg of the trip. The benefits of this approach are threefold:

  • Less congestion downtown, 
  • No cost burden on the the commuter 
  • the general public gets a free transit service allowing people to get around a fairly large area without a car. 
Other beneficiaries are tourists who prefer a shuttle over fighting for parking at each of the attractions, office workers and people not owning a car can go out for lunch or errands without needing a car.

The City DOT route planners took great care so that the shuttles would connect with neighborhoods surrounding downtown, allowing residents close to downtown go to work, shopping or attractions. However, it was never intended to go deep into neighborhoods and generally reduce commute times for the disadvantaged populations in West or East Baltimore.  Those communities have extra long commute times, in large part, because job sprawl has spread low skill entry level jobs to far flung places on the fringes of the Baltimore metro area. The Circulator can't and was never intended to compete with MTA for riders or solve the overall transit inequity.

The Pugh Transition Report includes the following recommendations regarding the Circulator:
- The Pugh Administration should consider establishing a City-led task force to coordinate MTA, Circulator, and private shuttle services—particularly in the downtown area—to save overall operating costs, reduce redundancy, and improve service for all users.
-It is incumbent upon the Department of Transportation, under the guidance of the Pugh Administration, to reinvigorate the system so that it performs optimally. The first step in this process is to articulate a clear and bounded mission for the service, defining it as a supplement to MTA service in dense, walkable neighborhoods. The service must then seek to maintain the nexus with the parking tax by limiting service to areas where the tax is collected. It should only provide the amount of service that can be covered by the existing parking tax and state support it receives. Over the long term, the City must consider a more sustainable funding source than the parking tax. 
- Re-evaluate and restructure the successful but fiscally unsustainable Charm City Circulator services, including clarifying its mission and limiting its geographic area, and identifying a sustainable funding source.
All this is important to  consider when planning for a financially sustainable future of the city bus. The Circulator suffers from scope creep i.e. the initially robust concept begins to become fuzzy.

  • The original robust idea of reducing car traffic and improving transit at the same time is still valid. It caters to many goals the Mayor expressed in her State of the City address. 

Baltimore's downtown is still the region's largest job center and Maryland's economic engine. To make it more walkable and more attractive isn't an alternative to boosting the livability in neighborhoods, both needs to be done. Downtown has become a neighborhood in its own right contributing as the fastest growing community in Baltimore to the much desired stabilization of Baltimore's tax base and population.  Many neighborhood residents continue to find work in downtown or use downtown cultural offerings or attractions such as the Arena or the stadiums. To free space that cars occupy all day why the drivers hold a job downtown is smart, whether the driver is a City resident or a commuter from the suburbs because it allows higher and better uses and ultimately more revenue for the City.
  • If MTA's service is unsatisfactory, it isn't the right answer for the City to compete but for the City to work with the MTA to improve its service. 
That is precisely what is happening currently when City and MTA collaborate on the imprved MTA bus service called CityLink. The City contributes bus lanes, signal priority and spaces for better hubs, all investments that also benefit the Circulator.
  • to reduce the structural deficit of the city bus either its services have to brought in line with the revenue or the revenue has to be increased to be in line with the desirable service. 

A reduction of service should only consider route realignments not head-ways. The original concept assumed Circulator buses run every 10 minutes so no schedule is needed. Buses that run only every 45 minutes like the Banner Route now are pretty useless in the context of the  original intent.

A further increase of the parking tax, originally proposed by Mayor Rawlings Blake was refused by the City Council. It could run the risk that revenue would not increase at the same rate as the tax if additional cost would deter people from parking in garages and lots at all. In that case, less driving would be a desirable outcome but not one that helps address the Circulator's financial sustainability. However, rightsizing parking, parking cost and benefits and the role of parking in the overall Baltimore transportation strategy have never been sufficiently defined in Baltimore.
In this October 2016 list of  parking cost the Baltimore-Towson area ranks #11, below Pittsburgh (Source)

This leaves contributions from institutions and businesses that benefit from the free shuttle. Some contribute annually already, but many don't. For example Johns Hopkins runs its own $6 million a year shuttle bus with some lines operating directly on the Circulator route. This adds pollution and congestion and and should be changed for mutual cost benefit. Large developments like Anthem House, Under Armour and McHenry Row in Locust Point benefit from the Banner Route but make no contributions. (UA pays significant amounts for the the Circulator's twin, the water taxi and the Harbor Connector). Many transit agencies provide free downtown transit. The State's contribution of $3 million a year is currently temporary and runs out in a few years. It should become a permanent fixture, especially if and when unhealthy overlap and competition with MTA has been eliminated.

Having been discussed as a financial problem and not as a successful transit solution for too long, the initial shiny image of the Circulator has taken a big hit. Lack of reliability and frequency are frequent complaints. The count down clocks at stops often don't work. A fatal shooting onboard a Green Line bus on March 8 of this year has helped. It is time that the bus service gains a solid footing.

In short, the Charm City Circulator is at an important crossroads. It plays too important a role in Baltimore's transit tool box to let it wither on a vine. It needs to be seen together with MTA's Link bus reform, with Bikeshare, with the water taxi and everything else that can make Baltimore a less car-centric city.  The Charm City Circulator's routes may need to be pruned, its revenues increased, its operations and bus procurement be made more efficient, but the service must be maintained as a free, frequent, reliable way to get around downtown.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA



related on this Blog: The future of Baltimore's Ciculator (2016)