City set to approve three-year, $25.9M extension for Charm City Circulator operator

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

The Bethesda-based firm that took over the Charm City Circulator bus system after the city took its former operator to court last year is now up for a three-year contract worth nearly $26 million, set to be approved by officials tomorrow morning.

The city has accepted a bid from Errands Plus, Inc., doing business as RMA Worldwide Services Chauffeured Transportation, to keep running the free bus system for the next three years, with two additional one-year renewal options.

The contract for approximately $25.9 million is on the Wednesday morning agenda for the Board of Estimates, led by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. Under the agreement, the city will lease its fleet of 12 full-sized buses to the company, and buy six more to lease out in the fall.

RMA has been operating the four-line shuttle service with a mix of smaller chauffeur buses and full-size buses since last fall, when the city scrambled to keep it running. The city cut  ties at that time with Transdev, which it sued for allegedly overbilling Baltimore for $20 million since the Charm City Circulator’s 2010 launch. A number of full-size buses have been out for service or maintenance, with the Department of Transportation alleging Transdev failed to perform required work.

A judge sent both parties to arbitration in December 2018.

Transdev submitted its own bid for the contract early last year, but unsurprisingly, given the legal battle and past issues with operating efficiency and management, the company “was determined to not be a responsible proposer,” this week’s spending board agenda says.

RMA’s short run so far hasn’t been perfect either. The system has been plagued by issues with its mobile app, early service outages and delays, untrained drivers and bus shortages that have required RMA to bring on a subcontractor to fill in the gaps. Not to mention, most of the shuttles themselves lack the years-old Charm City Circulator logo and green-and-purple branding, which has confused riders.

Some are questioning the logic of awarding such a sizable contract for a system in flux—and without a clear purpose.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey (District 3) said today that it’s “hard to justify continuing to renew service” when the Circulator system lacks a defined mission, and while it remains “duplicative in parts of the central core of the city” where Maryland Transit Administration buses are already running.

A couple examples: the Circulator’s Orange Route tracks parts of the same path as MTA’s CityLink Orange route running from West Baltimore through the Inner Harbor out to Essex; and the Circulator’s Purple Route follows parts of the CityLink Purple and Silver routes along N. Charles and St. Paul streets.

There are also private shuttles, likes those offered to students and staff by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland-Baltimore, with redundant routes sharing asphalt with city- and state-run buses.

“Right now, there’s very little space dedicated to anything but cars, and we allow shuttles to use that without any regulation whatsoever,” Dorsey said, “and we’re not coordinated to ensure we’re not undermining MTA service.”

Both Dorsey and Brandon Scott, now president of the Baltimore City Council, have called for an equity study into the Charm City Circulator’s service.

“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,” Scott previously told Baltimore Fishbowl.

And Dorsey agreed about the potential for equitable expansion. “I’d love to see Circulator service that runs to Belair Road, to Harford Road, to York Road in North Baltimore.”

Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, agrees the system’s lack of a defined purpose is problematic as officials commit to spending tens of millions more. He sent former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake a letter asking for just that in 2016, and made a similar request as a member of Catherine Pugh’s transition team in 2017.

“Without having a clear mission, we end up making decisions that make the system unsustainable and unfair,” O’Malley said today.

While he acknowledged concerns about equity of service, he said for now the city should consider reigning it all in with shorter routes that can make the system more financially sustainable. The Charm City Circulator was originally to be paid for with a parking tax, and that should be the chief goal, O’Malley says: sending the buses to high-density areas downtown where drivers must pay to park.

He also noted that with the system’s expansion to Charles Village and other areas since 2010, wait times have increased for riders. “We expanded it, we made it more complex and they can’t deliver every-10-minute or even every-15-minute service. It’s not frequent anymore, it’s not simple anymore, and it’s financially unsustainable.”

And the switch in vendors certainly hasn’t helped. DOT spokesman German Vigil said as of last week, the buses have been stopping every 25 minutes under RMA’s emergency contract.

If there’s one big boon from all of this for riders, it’s the coming change in branding. Since RMA took over, the company has been running a mix of red, black and white shuttles with less-than-obvious signage indicating that they are in fact Circulator buses.

Assuming the longer-term deal is approved tomorrow, “we’re gonna make sure that all of the buses are branded with the Circulator logo,” Vigil said.

Ethan McLeod
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