By Tazeen Ahmad and Amirah Al Idrus
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 million 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.
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.”
College administrators also felt students needed different routes and better service.
The Collegetown Network, a consortium of local colleges, investigated why Baltimore was not hailed as a great college town, like Boston or Berkeley. The findings: Students were not getting to internships or to the city’s art and culture with the MTA, said Kristen McGuire, the executive director of the Collegetown Network.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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