As Circulator gets new contract to keep running, questions on system’s equity persist

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Riders wait for a RMA America mini-bus on Pratt Street serving the Banner Route. Photo by Danielle Sweeney.

The city is renewing its contract with RMA Worldwide Chauffeured Transportation to operate the Charm City Circulator for another three months, said Department of Transportation spokesman German Vigil, and the popular online bus system’s app is back online.

The city is re-upping the $1.7 million emergency contract while it negotiates an agreement with the company to run the nine-year-old Baltimore City bus network. RMA was also awarded the long-term contract by the city, Vigil said in an email. According to CityBuy, the current agreement ends today.

If you ride Baltimore’s Circulator buses, the four color-coded routes that serve Harbor East to Hollins Market (Orange route), Federal Hill to 33rd Street (Purple Route), Inner Harbor to Fort McHenry (Banner Route) and City Hall to Hopkins Medical Campus (Green route), no doubt you’ve noticed the abrupt service changes that have taken place over the last few months.

Namely, the hodgepodge of red, black and white replacement coaches supplementing the Circulator’s branded fleet after the city decided not to renew its contract with the system’s longtime operator, Transdev.

This chaos ensued in the wake of the city suing the company for breach of contract in September, alleging $20 million in over-billing since 2010. The Transdev contract expired in October. The city has been scrambling to keep the service running ever since.

In the lawsuit, the city requested a jury trial, but a judge recently sided with Transdev and said the dispute must go to arbitration.  

The Circulator app has been down for months now, too, causing additional confusion for riders, who not only don’t necessarily know what their bus will look like, but also have no way of knowing when it will show up.

Kira Gardner-Marshall, who has been riding the Circulator for eight years, said there’s much more uncertainty with the service now.

“I used the Circulator quite a bit. Now, I find that I walk more and ride the MTA more now that they have a payment app and I don’t have to carry cash,” the Mount Vernon resident said.

Vigil said the confusing look of the replacement Circulator vehicles is only temporary.

“When the long-term agreement is finalized, we will have the buses properly wrapped for a uniformly branded fleet.” As for reliability, he said, Circulator buses now arrive about every 25 minutes.

Current Circulator ridership numbers, which Vigil says are tentative, show that before the recent hiccups, tens of thousands were riding the buses. From July to October, the Purple Route had 319,108 boardings, the Orange Route 117,425, the Banner Route, 39,325, and the Green Route 30,782.

While popular, the Circulator has been fraught with financial and management issues for most of its existence, including poor purchasing decisions, the conviction of its one-time manager for fraud, operating deficits, the near-cancellation of routes and bad record-keeping. (In fact, the city’s most recent DOT audit noted that as late as 2017, the agency didn’t have verifiable passenger numbers for the free buses.)

Downtown Mobility vs. Equity

Perhaps the most long-standing criticism of the Circulator, however, is its exclusive focus on downtown.

While the four Circulator routes operate as far west as Hollins Market, as far north as 36th St., and as far east as Northeast Market, and residents from all over the city ride the buses, the core service area has always been downtown, where the city parking garages that provide about $6 million a year in Circulator funding are located.

“The Circulator was designed to move people between the most dense neighborhoods in the city and it was paid for by a tax on garage parking in these same neighborhoods,” said Kirby Fowler, director of the Downtown Partnership, an organization that represents businesses and organizations in Baltimore’s central business district. Fowler said the partnership brought the idea for the Circulator to the city in the first place.

Public transportation follows high density in most cities, and the Circulator’s model is not unusual, but the city’s focus on providing free buses to densely populated neighborhoods exclusively troubles Second District City Councilman Brandon Scott.

“For a city with such deep transportation issues, you have to think about who has access to the free service in their neighborhoods. And most people don’t. Sandtown doesn’t. Penn-North doesn’t. Belair-Edison doesn’t,” Scott said.

Last year, Scott introduced legislation, unanimously passed by the council and signed by Mayor Catherine Pugh, creating a charter amendment to establish a $15 million equity fund that would “develop policies, practices and strategic investments to reverse disparity trends based on race, gender or income.” Voters overwhelmingly passed the measure in November, 92 percent in favor to 8 percent against.

In an interview, Scott called for examination of the city’s free bus system.

“I want the city to look at this through a lens of equity, so that if the city is going to be in the business of providing public transportation it is done in an equitable fashion,” he said, adding that “expanding to have routes in and through historically forgotten areas and all other options should be considered based on the assessment.”

For Scott, the issue is not necessarily who rides the Circulator–ridership, according to DOT’s own surveys, is predominantly people of color–but which neighborhoods have nearby access to a free bus.

Put another way, downtown Baltimore has four free bus routes. The rest of the city has to rely on the state-run MTA, which costs $1.80 per ride and is often unreliable.

Third District Councilman Ryan Dorsey said his recently passed Complete Streets bill will help the city prioritize transit, but that the Circulator failed in recent years because of its lack of a clear mission. He agreed with Scott that the free bus service “also needs to be planned in a sustainable and equitable way.”

“That means better coordination and less duplication with MTA and the university shuttle services,” he said. “It also means studying expanding Circulator services to places like Belair-Edison, Greater Mondawmin and the Harford Road corridor.”

The Circulator was supposed to be funded primarily through a portion of city garage taxes, advertising and state and federal grants, but for most of its existence it has also relied heavily on the city’s general fund to keep it going.

“Increasingly, we’ve dipped into the general fund to pay for this service,” Scott said.

His take on the Circulator is hardly a new one, but the recent passage of his equity assessment bill will likely give him more leverage with DOT and the rest of the City Council.

“Baltimore is one of the most racially inequitable cities in the country,” he said. “I think that DOT will find it impossible to say that the Circulator is operating in an equitable way.”

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