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The Sun/Jed Kirschbaum

An early version of the city's Charm City Circulator bus is displayed at a 2008 news conference.

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The Charm City Circulator, Baltimore's long-awaited and long-delayed free downtown shuttle bus system, will make its debut Monday under less-than-festive circumstances.

One of the key initiatives of Mayor Sheila Dixon's transportation-minded administration, the Circulator will hit the streets just five days after the announcement that the mayor would step down from office next month as part of a plea bargain of in her public corruption case.

Before the announcement, the mayor had been expected to be the  headliner at a news conference to kick off the service.

Late Wednesday, just hours after the announcement, Dixon spokesman Scott Peterson said the mayor is still expected to show up Monday.

"She's still  the mayor and the Circulator was an accomplishment of this administration, so I hope she does," he said. "It's a big deal for the city."

Peterson said the event could actually be less awkward with Dixon's legal issues resolved and the mayor's lame-duck status  confirmed.

"Life is easier now," he said.

The Baltimore Transportation Department will launch the circulator by beginning service on its east-west Orange Route bettween Hollins Market and Harbor East via the Inner Harbor. It plans to start two other routes -- a north-south route between  Penn Station and Federal Hill and a route connecting Johns Hopkins Hospital with Harbor East and City Hall -- in the spring. Buses on the routes are scheduled to come at 10-minute intervals.

Transit buffs can get a "sneak preview" of the new hybrid-electric buses Friday from noon until 2 p.m. at Katyn Circle in Harbor East.

Peterson specifically requested that Washington-area media be alerted to the Circulator's debut, which he believes will have significant appeal to D.C. day visitors.

"For D.C. folks, Baltimore is Federal Hill, the Inner Harbor and Fells Point," he said.

So all you Washington media folks who drop in on this blog, consider yourself notified.

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