Less than a year after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake expanded the Charm City Circulator and reversed a plan to eliminate some free bus routes, her administration introduced a plan Wednesday to scale back the service.
The proposal would eliminate the Banner route between the Inner Harbor and Locust Point, which was targeted for elimination last year, and cancel the northward expansion of the Purple route to the Johns Hopkins University, which began just nine months ago.
It would also shut down the Green route, which connects the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus, Fells Point and downtown.
The administration proposed the changes, which would take effect in January, to cover a $6 million budget shortfall.
Rawlings-Blake had allocated the money in this year's spending plan, but it was contingent on the City Council agreeing to a 4 percent increase in the parking tax at the city's public parking garages.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and other council members have opposed that increase, saying the council agreed in 2013 not to raise the parking tax until 2020. A bill introduced by the Rawlings-Blake administration in May has not received a hearing.
"Considering the fact that the city entered into an agreement when we last raised the parking tax, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to backtrack and break that agreement," said Lester Davis, Young's spokesman.
A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said the city cannot otherwise afford the Circulator in its present form.
"The mayor is dedicated to providing this service and is willing to make the tough financial decisions to meet the goals of the Circulator and keep it operating," spokesman Anthony McCarthy said. "But we can't continue to absorb these costs. It is fiscally irresponsible."
Baltimore officials have long squabbled over how to pay for the Circulator, a popular free bus system launched in 2010 by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon that is used by more than 4 million people each year.
The service costs the city about $14 million per year. It is funded by state and other grants, and by the sale of advertising on the buses. The system has also received federal funding.
City Councilman Brandon Scott has advocated charging $1 per ride to offset the Circulator's costs. The service's deficit has grown to more than $11 million.
Scott said he would have voted against an increase in the parking tax to pay for a free bus service that, while popular, serves only a portion of the population.
"We cannot get around the fact that Circulator only operates in a specific part of the city and the average citizen cannot walk outside their door and catch a free bus," he said.
He said the city has too many other responsibilities to be operating the Circulator at a loss.
"I'll consider raising the parking tax if they consider charging for the bus," he said. "Until then, I don't want to hear a peep about Circulator."
Councilman Eric Costello said the lack of a fare is part of the Circulator's appeal. He cited a 2014 study commissioned by the city that found that charging passengers could result in the service losing grant money and ridership.
Costello and neighborhood leaders in his district lobbied Rawlings-Blake last year to reverse course on the plan to cut the Banner route. The route was created with a federal grant as a temporary link between the Inner Harbor and the 2012 Star-Spangled Spectacular events but has become popular with Locust Point residents.
"I'm obviously disheartened," Costello said. "It's the one shining example of what works in terms of public transportation in the city. It's reliable, safe and clean."
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke had pushed to stretch the Purple route farther north, from Penn Station to 33rd Street, to connect the system's most popular line from Federal Hill to the Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"We waited and asked for an extension of the Purple route for years," Clarke said. "We were so pleased when it finally came.
"We hardly had the bus stops established, and now we're in danger of losing it. We need to do everything we can to get this termination halted."
McCarthy said the mayor hopes the council changes its mind on the parking tax, and is open to ideas the public might have to keep the bus service intact.
Comments may be sent to the Department of Transportation at 417 E. Fayette St., Room 559, or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org with "CCC Proposed Changes" as the subject.
Public hearing dates, times and locations are to be listed at charmcitycirculator.com and baltimorecity.gov/Government/AgenciesDepartments/Transportation.aspx when they are scheduled.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.