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A real game-changer for Baltimore

Whether the Baltimore Grand Prix will ever prove itself a "game-changer" for the city, as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake predicted, may be debatable, but there is one investment of recent years that may actually live up to that title. Instead of drawing visitors to Baltimore for one weekend out of the year, it's doing so year-round and boosting downtown businesses (and job opportunities) in the process.

It's the Charm City Circulator, the free downtown shuttle bus service that this week launched its third route, a green line running between Downtown, Fells Point and Johns Hopkins Hospital. That joins the orange line (Hollins Market to Harbor East) and purple line (Penn Station to Federal Hill), both of which began service last year.

Following the mantra of "fast, friendly and free," the shuttle or "CCC" has attracted more than 3 million riders in its two years of existence. The buses are modern, upscale, free to ride and offer perks like GPS tracking on mobile phones, online or at bus stop LED displays so riders know exactly when the next bus will arrive. The system even offers a free Water Taxi Harbor Connector to Tide Point from either the Maritime Park or Canton Waterfront Park.

It's a service that the Maryland Transit Administration could only dream of offering. The state agency actually provides two shuttle-style bus lines around Hampden and Mondawmin Mall, but the service is neither fast nor particularly friendly (and certainly not free).

Baltimore is not the first city to offer a downtown circulator — nearby Washington and Philadelphia provide them, too — but the quality of the CCC's land and water service and its growth are enviable. That's a tribute not only to Veolia Transportation, the private company that runs the shuttle for the city, but to anyone who has ever parked in a city-owned garage.

Why the shout-out to motorists? Because the bulk of the CCC's cost is financed through the most recent increase in parking rates. Without that $5.5 million annual payment, there would be no Charm City Circulator. The system's other sources of revenue — grants, advertising and private contributions — are minuscule by comparison.

The justification for this is simple: By providing a downtown shuttle, the city is making it easier for people to visit downtown without their cars. Thus, a certain portion of the ridership is paying for its service, however indirectly.

The formula is crucial to the CCC's success. Downtown visitors are both paying for the service and receiving the benefit exclusively. MTA buses rarely have that opportunity, as the system is financed through statewide taxes and fees (and only a fraction through the $1.60 fare) and must provide service to a far larger area.

Right now, the CCC averages about 8,000 riders per day. That's not a huge number compared to the 372,000 riders the MTA carries daily through its bus, MARC, Metro and light rail lines, but it's not insignificant either — particularly considering that the typical CCC rider is a newcomer to public transit.

Who are those typical circulator riders? City officials recently commissioned an independent survey to find out. But they are likely a combination of tourists and people who live and/or work downtown. Some may even have chosen to live in neighborhoods like Federal Hill and Inner Harbor East because of the convenient service.

That's what makes the shuttle a potential game-changer for the city. It's bringing people downtown to live, work and play and selling mass transit to a skeptical public. Interestingly, MTA ridership has not suffered with the CCC's expansion; instead, it's grown modestly (adding 12,000 riders over the last several years) — even on bus lines with overlapping service.

The city has already announced plans to open a fourth shuttle line, one running from the Inner Harbor to Fort McHenry beginning in May 2012 and continuing at least through October 2014 to coincide with the bicentennial of the War of 1812. But surely there are other opportunities for expansion.

Why not, for instance, identify other city neighborhoods that might benefit from a circulator to get people to and from work or shopping? Or provide express bus services from park-and-ride lots outside the city to downtown? The secret to either would be to identify a funding source — maybe some combination of fares and employer contributions in the case of an express bus, or perhaps a local assessment on neighborhoods that want their own circulator.

These are services the MTA can't provide. The General Assembly is already poised to raise fares next year (as recommended by a recent commission looking at transportation financing). But the Charm City Circulator has already proven itself a success. The only question left is: How big a game-changer could local transit become?

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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