Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Charm City Circulator remains in the headlines for all the wrong reasons

In 2010 when the City Circulator bus shuttle rolled out, it was to great fanfare and a series of success stories following the launch. The service was praised for its spanking new innovative electric buses, reliable operations, it’s real-time online app, well marked stops, a diverse, rapidly growing ridership and the fact that it wasn’t MTA. The service had a secure funding source and clearly defined logical routes. Downtown Partnership's CEO Kirby Fowler called it "the gateway drug to transit".
Circulator with "limousine bus" as a patch (Photo: Sweeney)

In 2019 the luster has worn off. The Circulator has long become a troubled child with years of making headlines for all the wrong reasons. (2014: Former head of Charm City Circulator pleads guilty to bribery).

In 2019 there are not enough buses, the vehicles themselves are aged. and often in worse shape than those of the MTA. The previous real time app is defunct, and the operator is inexperienced. The service racks up a deficit every year, it’s routes are confusing and far longer than the revenues can sustain. To top it all off, the City is engaged in a law suit with the previous provider, a global company with deep pockets that is unlikely to easily concede. The system operates under an "emergency contract".

The reasons for this change of fortunes don’t reside only with one entity and they have many roots.
  • For example the buses: the innovative electric bus turned out to be a dud. It’s manufacturer went bankrupt and the fleet had to be retired and replaced long before it’s time. Unfortunately, bus replacement hadn’t been in the budget, creating one of the key reasons for the deficit. 
  • The routes: the Charm City Circulator became subject of the accusation that everything was done for the “white L” and nothing for the “black butterfly”. Even though, that had never been entirely true for the Circulator, the City twisted the Green Line to meet Equity goals. The result is a unconvincing and unpopular alignment. 
  • Finally, the operator. Understanding that the City DOT was ill equipped to be a bus company, operations and maintenance was shopped out to Veolia (which later became TransDev), a juggernaut that runs transit around the world. An arrangement that required strong oversight.
For whatever reason, the City took a hands-off approach which allowed lax maintenance and reimbursement patterns that are now subject of the lawsuit. While the new DOT Director wanted to clean house and use the end of Transdev’s contract to provide a new beginning, Transdev told me at the the time, that six months after the new director had been in office, they had yet to meet face to face.
Tortured routes in the name of equity (Green Route)

By the time a new contract for the Circulator was supposed to go into effect, the old agreement with Transdev was simply extended. Finally, when the bids were on the table, only Transdev and RMA had submitted a proposal. Only one had the necessary buses and a maintenance facility: Velia/Transdev.  But it couldn’t be a contender any longer  after the City had filed suit against the company on September 15 of last year. That left one single bidder which had the future in its hands. A bidder with scarcely any experience in running transit except for a tiny shuttle in Bethesda, MD.
At the time I wrote in this blog:
It doesn't take much to imagine the train wrecks that are possible once the Veolia extension expires on October 11:
  • A new company gets the contract without funding for the required Banner Route (where already old Diesel fumes spewing bus are run to save cost), low ridership on the Orange Route,  a route that defies any transit planning logic, and the flagship Purple Route bleeding money since it has been extended to Hopkins University). A company that would have to procure buses and grab a maintenance facility in mere weeks 
  •  Additionally, further State support for the Circulator on which the City came to rely, could be in jeopardy if no viable operation of the City system is in sight, especially since the State already saw their support of bikeshare evaporate into nothing.
 Many were still hoping that a new contract would create a clear new beginning, especially ending the annual deficits and a solution for the problem with the bus replacement cost. Hope, in spite of the way how the pre-Pourciau RFP had been written, leaving little room for creative innovation. The new contract puts the vendor in a straight jacket, forcing him to run exactly the same expanded routes that had contributed to the deficit with a specified number of buses. An attempt by MTA to suggest a simpler, shorter and sustainable route system that would not duplicate MTA service was probably too drastic to be taken seriously. In the RFP the City had to admit it had no maintenance facility and the RFP didn't pay attention to what had been recommended in the Transition Report for Mayor Pugh.
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)
When the extension date expired, Veolia was in no mood to continue a day longer, and RMA wasn’t ready. No buses, no operators, no shop and no experience with fixed route urban transit. Still, after severe initial hick-ups, no complete melt-down occurred and Charm City buses were seen plying Baltimore's streets, given the impression that somehow things were working.
RMA shuttle in Bethesda (RMA)

But last weekend the SUN came out with another damaging headline: "Charm City Circulator's new operator has not trained all drivers, faces persistent bus shortage". Both the Mayor and BC-DOT Director Pourciau sure could have used some good news, both are battling issues on many fronts, issues that continue to bury the progress that is being made. (For example, Pugh's new Police Commissioner, or Pourciau's successful completion of a baseline assessment of previous transit plans).

As the SUN article from last weekend shows, RMA is still struggling to get its bearing. This isn't surprising since all legacy issues continue to be a drag on the system:
  • the insufficient number of buses, 
  • the irregular headways,  
  • the inefficient Green Line route, 
  • the unfunded Banner Route and extended Purple Route, 
  • the overlap with MTA’s service, 
  • the lack of real integration with the also City-subcontracted water Shuttle Harbor Connector 
  • or the fact that the Circulator doesn’t show up on the now popular Transit App for lack of a published GTFS feed. 
When I am in Fed Hill/Locust Point and need to get home, I am more likely to take a scooter or walk versus using the Harbor Connector. I don't want to have to look up a schedule every time I want to use it. Its probably faster for me to just hoof it. (Brian Seel, a want to be Circulator rider who became famous when he posted his torturous commute to work in a Howard County TOD)
Recycled transit buses 
At the time of the RFP, I had written that "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?". This would still be a good question to ask. In the meantime, RMA learns fixed route transit operations by providing them. Maintenance of the buses is still a problem and there simply aren't enough since Veolia had taken several of their own buses back when their contract expired and RMA had not enough transit suitable vehicles, only "executive limousine coaches" which are not accessible and not made for transit. So instead of a shiny fleet that shows MTA how transit needs to be run, the Circulator fleet is a ragtag fleet, cobbled together from various places, including old retired transit buses spewing fumes worse than any current MTA bus. Meanwhile, MTA has revamped its bus operation under the banner LINK and introduced its own colored CityLink routes, adding confusion. Still, at this time MTA's buses operate more professionally and predictably than those of the Circulator. Quite a reversal of fortune. The Circulator still has a chance to become a premier service again. For that it needs to be seriously reformed.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

From this blog:

2015: Free Downtown Bus Transit - Community Asset or Yuppie Shuttle?
2018: The Circulator hanging in the balance
2018: City sues Transdev. Circulator on course to crash and burn
2018: Circulator service severely disrupted - totally down on two routes

No comments:

Post a Comment