Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Circulator hanging in the balance

Eight years ago when the Baltimore Circulator was new and much shinier than the MTA buses the City fell  in love with the free bus. Many still consider it a cool thing even though it's current reputation and appearance is a mere shadow of its former self. What happened?

Conceived to be a sustainable and lasting solution it has joined the ranks of other transportation related issues in this city, for which solutions have been kicked down the road leaving uncertainty hovering over them like a sword of Damocles.  In the case of the Circulator the biggest culprit is that the system was inflated beyond its means and now seems to run a deficit. Subsequently service and upkeep have been cut in sensitive areas such as head-ways, reliability cleanliness and information.

The Governor, in his self-professed quest to improve bus service in this City, has provided a one time cash infusion for the City's system and instructed the MTA to assist in coming up with a sustainable Circulator system that, no small thing for the State, also doesn’t compete with the MTA bus service.
MTA proposal:  Truncated Circulator routes

MTA’s proposed a truncated service, a plan which immediately disappeared in a DOT drawer and did not receive a public vetting or even real consideration. The ideas for reduction were drastic:
the MTA recommends that the Green route be discontinued entirely. While not as low as on the Banner route, ridership is relatively low on the Green route due to its circuitous routing, and the strongest segment of the route, Broadway, will be served by the frequent CityLink Brown, which will offer a one-seat ride to downtown. As such, the CityLink Brown should provide adequate service on Broadway, permitting the removal of the CCC’s Green route.
The MTA also recommends that the Banner route be discontinued entirely. Ridership on this route is relatively light, and should be adequately accommodated on LocalLinks 71 and 94, which will serve the Key Highway and Fort Avenue corridors respectively, offering a one-seat ride to downtown from both. LocalLink 71 is proposed to run every 30 to 45 minutes, and LocalLink 94 is proposed to run every 35 minutes.
Meanwhile, Transdev (Veolia) which operates the local transit for the City DOT stated numerous times in the past that their operating cost does not exceed the proceeds dedicated to the Circulator coming from parking fees and private sources. To which the City counters that Veolia's perspective omits the cost of bus amortization, payback of the current fleet and fleet renewal. The buses themselves are a sore topic, because the City had initially insisted on a new environmentally friendly but experimental bus (EcoSaver IV) which did not withstand the rigors of daily operations. Those 13 buses turned out to be a costly disaster vastly increasing the fleet cost because they had to be essentially written off long before a standard bus would be taken out of service.
MTA and Circulator: Complementing or competing? (photo:
Transition Report)

A good six months after DOT had a new director, Veolia indicated when asked that the director had still not met with them. Additionally, a federal grant which was used to pay for the bus route to Fort McHenry had long expired but that route is still limping along with a much curtailed service and a bus every 45 minutes and the existing service contract expired this January. The transportation element of the Pugh transition report would have given some clear guidance and quite concise principles for the Circulator, but they appear to have been forgotten in a drawer as well.
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. (Mayor Pugh Transition Report)
All of this can take off the shine on the nicest project and so the Circulator looks like a tired service whose time has come just like so many previous attempts of various parties to run a downtown bus shuttle. In fact,  transit advocate Danielle Sweeney posted on her Facebook page "where is the Bus, Baltimore?" today: "I am starting to think that the city should throw in the towel on this one"

What better time to bid the service out for prospective operators? Well, that is precisely what the City did, forced by the fact that the extended current agreement runs out this October but unfazed by the other fact that the systemic issues remain unresolved. (The Board of Estimates had extended the contract with Veolia Transportation from January to October 2018  for $6.12 million in December 2017 without making any route adjustments). The amended bid date for potential bus operators to return their bids was April 11. A committee currently reviews the responses. About 10 potential operators and bus manufacturers participated in the pre-bid conference but far fewer submitted an actual bid. Which isn't surprising given how the RFP is written.
Current system map: So inflated it doesn't fit on the screen 

To not be confused about this triangle of MTA, DOT and Veolia (or any other future private operator): MTA is just a bystander who became only a partner by providing a cash injection. Veolia isn't really a partner either, but a company to which the City outsources the operations of buses the City owns because the City DOT doesn't have the capacity or knowledge to run a municipal transit system by themselves. And DOT, well they own a dozen buses and some debt on them.

In other words, this isn't and won't be one of those much touted P3s (a public private partnership) because the operator has no equity in the system and has no independence or capability to really reform the system, not now, and not how it is assumed in the RFP.

This becomes clear if one reads the many pages of the new two- part RFP which is very clear on where the new operator has to place city logo decals on the buses, but is very foggy on what service is actually expected, the operations being laid out in seven "principles" with very few hard requirements for routes, headways or the equipment except it must be ADA compliant and have automatic vehicle locator equipment (AVL).
It is the intent of the City to continue the Charm City Circulator fixed route circulator services which are designed individually and collectively to serve a variety of ridership markets, including residents, workers, tourists, etc. in the service area. 
Routes have been designed and operationally-tested by the City, but will require validation by the Contractor. Offerors may propose minor changes to the routings in their proposal, but shall use the City’s calculation of annual revenue miles and revenue hours for purposes of completing the financial proposal.
Each vehicle used in revenue service shall have an approved City logo displayed on side, hood, or driver door of the vehicle, and on the rear of the vehicle. Offeror shall propose branding decals and graphics that will be approved by the City. (City RFP) 
75% of the possible 100 points a bidder can score go to price. With this predominance of cost as the deciding factor, one can expect that bidders would either skimp on service (within the soft framework that is provided) or on the equipment (using old, tired buses). Given that the fleet itself had been a major headache in the past, the City asks bidders to provide a cost proposal for three scenarios, all not around different routes but around who owns the buses. (The City has 12 functional model year 2011 Orion buses) which either the city or the contractor would supplement with another 12 new or used buses. (The thought here is of using old MTA buses, a far cry from when the Circulator set out to show the MTA how good a bus service can be!). The third version limits the fleet to the existing dozen buses with a bit more than half the annual "revenue miles", clearly a scenario where the routes would have to be drastically reduced. It isn't immediately clear from the RFP how many buses make up the current fleet (More than a dozen but less than two dozen), what would happen to the Van Hool buses currently in operation or who actually owns those.
Circulator and Transdev mini-bus maintenance facility on Cherry Hill Rd

Another interesting aspect of the RFP is this statement:
The City does not own nor currently have access to a transit operations facility from which to base the service. The Contractor must be able to provide all operations, maintenance and storage functions. (City RFP
Not a small challenge for an operator which is expected to run the system by the summer of 2018! The RFP seems to be silent on who will equip and maintain the wayside facilities such as bus stops, the RFP appears to address only signs, brochures and marketing, not shelters, real time bus arrival information, web-based apps or similar rider services needed to run an attractive service. Veolia currently operates a Circulator bus maintenance shop on a 2.3 acre site on Cherry Hill Road which was purchased by a 1400 Cherry Hill LLC in 2000 from the Maxine Tour bus company.  Access to this facility seems to be the trump card for a winning bid.

Instead of ordaining how many buses to run and asking what it would cost, the RFP would have been more innovative by stating: This is my budget, how much service can you give me for that? In that way the City would have solved its deficit problem plus the bidder who provides the most efficient quality service would have won, not the one with the oldest buses.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the article discussing the many problems with the Circulator. If the State is really interested in having free bus service in downtown Baltimore (which it would appear to be if Hogan is putting up money for the Circular), my suggestion is for the MTA to change its fare structure so as to offer free trips in the downtown core currently served by the Circulator and get rid of the Circulator altogether. This would eliminate the overlapping service issue, and the money the City is currently putting to the Circulator would go to MTA. Yes, changing the way fares are collected could be difficult for MTA, but it is not impossible. For trips that start or end outside the free area, you would still need to pay. You’d pay when getting on for inbound trips and pay when getting off for outbound trips. I think it can be done – if there is will to make it happen. And as you frequently point out, that is something that is often lacking.