City officials plan several "drastic changes" to the popular Charm City Circulator network in order to reduce costs — eliminating the Banner route through Locust Point and reducing service on the Green and Orange routes, said transportation director William Johnson.
The proposed changes, which also include reduced hours and an extension of the Purple route into Charles Village, will save $3.1 million a year and help reduce the system's growing deficit, Johnson said.
"We're not excited about having to reduce service. It's a great service," he said of the free bus system, introduced in January 2010. "We'd love to continue operating as we do today, but these are tough decisions that have to be made."
The service will remain free and parking fees for city garages, which help fund the system's budget, will not be raised, Johnson said.
The changes will be reflected in Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposed budget for next fiscal year, which must be passed by the City Council by June 30. The public will have a chance to comment on the proposal in the coming weeks, officials said.
Greg Sileo, president of the Locust Point Civic Association, said residents will fight the loss of the Banner route.
"It's an asset to Locust Point, and I think the community is going to be very disappointed," Sileo said. "In fact, I think they're going to be angry."
The route connects downtown to Fort McHenry and originally was funded through a federal grant related to the bicentennial celebrations of the War of 1812. That grant recently expired.
The Orange route, which traverses downtown east to west, will have its buses reduced to three from five under the plan, its western loop shortened and some of its stops consolidated.
Officials still are determining what to do with the Green route but likely will cut the number of buses on the line from six to three and reduce service in areas already served by the Johns Hopkins Hospital Shuttle and Maryland Transit Administration buses.
The Purple route, the system's most popular, will be extended north to 33rd Street, which is expected to increase annual route ridership from about 1.8 million to 2.7 million.
In one example of reduced hours, Monday through Thursday service would run from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. year-round, compared to current summer hours of 6:30 a.m. until 9 p.m.
The transportation department recommended the changes to Rawlings-Blake last month, after reviewing the findings of consultant Louis Berger, who was paid $130,000 to identify potential cost savings.
The firm recommended many of the changes but also called for eliminating the Green route. Instead, Rawlings-Blake asked that the Green route be reduced.
In a statement, Rawlings-Blake said the Circulator's success is "undeniable" — with more than 13,000 riders a day — but also must be sustainable.
"The case for continuing the program could not be clearer. I had promised that we would move forward in the most fiscally responsible way, and my budget does that," she said. "We will find a comprehensive, solvent path forward to ensure the long-term growth of the Circulator."
Since its creation, the Circulator has built a deficit of more than $11 million, said Andrew Kleine, the city's budget chief.
With the $3.1 million in proposed savings, the system is expected to cost $11.3 million in 2016, with $2.9 million coming from the general fund and $8.4 million coming from a tax on parking in city garages, state and other grant funding, and earned revenue. Among the grant funding is a $2 million annual state grant that ends in 2019.
Of the $2.9 million from the general fund, $2.2 million will fund a bus replacement reserve while $700,000 will reduce the deficit. Kleine said he is optimistic the system can become self-sustaining.
"It's helpful to our downtown residents, it's helpful to the tourism industry and we think it has some effect on pushing some of the congestion out of downtown," he said. "People will see that it's a service worth supporting and will step up and partner with us. That's what we're counting on."
City Councilman Eric T. Costello, who represents South Baltimore, said he will fight to keep the Banner route and expand the Purple route farther south.
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He called the route a "lifeline" for connecting seniors with grocery stores and young professionals with employment hubs: "We want 10,000 families, but we don't want them to bring all their cars with them. We need to make it easier for people to want to stay in the city or move to the city."
Sileo said losing the Banner route would be a "devastating hit" to businesses on the peninsula that rely on customers who ride from downtown, and would upend the commuting routines of hundreds of residents who rely on the service.
"The ability to connect this peninsula to the Inner Harbor and the rest of the city is valuable and shouldn't be something they are even considering taking off the table," he said.
The city in February approved a $12.4 million deal that extended a standing Veolia Transportation contract to operate the buses until July 2016. The deal included a 1.6 percent increase in Veolia's hourly rate because of an "increase in the vendor's labor costs," according to Board of Estimates documents.
Johnson said he hopes the city will be able to find additional savings under its next contract.