'How could you not get this right?' Baltimore riders frustrated by Charm City Circulator disruption

Michael Peery used a plastic CVS bag to shield his head from the pouring rain Thursday morning near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as he waited on a Charm City Circulator bus that never came.

The Baltimore Department of Transportation canceled service on the system’s Green and Banner routes and ran fewer buses on the Purple and Orange routes Thursday with less than 24 hours’ notice to riders while it transitions to a new bus vendor. The new vendor, RMA Worldwide Chauffered Transportation, has not finalized a contract with the city and is in the process of testing its buses for safety, the city transportation department said.

Peery, 39, said he rides the city’s free buses daily to get to Beans & Bread, a resource program that offers meals, health care and other services for the homeless. Riders should have been warned further in advance about the service interruption, he said.

“You should at least give somebody a day or two [of] notice, not just a couple hours before people are getting up and going to work and [depending] on this service,” Peery said.

The switch to a new vendor comes in the wake of the city suing the prior operator last month, alleging Trandev Services Inc. overbilled it $20 million on the contract for the free buses since 2010.

Transportation Director Michelle Pourciau said the department hoped the overnight transition would happen without any disruption, but “we started running into some glitches at the last minute.”

Thursday morning, only four of the system’s usual 14 buses were running and only on the Purple and Orange routes, which run north-south and east-west through downtown Baltimore, city transportation department spokesman German Vigil said Thursday. The new vendor is providing the service under a three-month, $1.7 million emergency contract until a permanent contract is in place, he said.

By 4 p.m., three more buses were added, reopening the Banner route, which runs through South Baltimore to Fort McHenry, Vigil said. The Green route could reopen Friday morning, he said.

Buses will be added each day under the emergency contract with all 14 in place by Monday, Pourciau said.

To help fill the gap in the meantime, Lyft announced it will offer two free rides of up to $15 value between any two Circulator stops Thursday and Friday, the rideshare company announced. Riders can access the free service by entering the code “CIRCULATOR.”

The city did not pay Lyft to put on the promotion, a company spokeswoman said.

“Access to a variety of transportation options is critical to Baltimore residents,” Mike Heslin, Lyft’s Baltimore market manager said in a statement. “We’re happy to work with the Baltimore City Department of Transportation to provide a solution during this temporary gap in public transportation.”

Pourciau said the transition to the new Circulator vendor has been in the works for months, and she attributed the unexpected service interruption to RMA needing to inspect the buses — as well as “additional volatility” with the outgoing vendor.

“All of the things that needed to be delivered in keeping with the contract close-out were not delivered,” Pourciau said.

The contract with Transdev required the company to inspect and turn over the city-owned buses to the city on Wednesday, but the buses did not have the proper inspections when they were received, Vigil said. He said the city law department is determining whether to seek restitution for the safety inspections, the cost for which is not yet known.

A Transdev spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The $1.7 million cost of the emergency contract, signed Tuesday, was roughly equal to what the city would be paying the new vendor for three months under a permanent contract, Vigil said.

“We really thought everything would line up,” Pourciau said. “It’s so unfortunate that we had less notification than we would want. But we’ve got four buses out there; we’re ramping up.”

Shelby Smith, 32, of Essex, was waiting on St. Paul Street Thursday morning for a southbound Purple route Circulator bus to her job as an assistant kitchen manager for a nonprofit rehabilitation center in Federal Hill. She called the service interruption “pretty rude, for lack of a better term.”

“We all got schedules and stuff, so [it’s] putting us behind,” Smith said. “And I don’t have a bus pass.”

Martinique Brown, 25, of Edmondson Village, takes the Circulator to counseling on North Charles Street. She also chafed at the lack of service with little notice to riders.

“I don’t think they respect people,” she said. “They should at least give people 24 hours’ notice.”

After waiting in the rain for no bus to arrive, Laura Seifert and a group of other Banner route riders ended up walking from their stop in Federal Hill to their jobs downtown, she said.

Seifert said she even called the new phone number listed on the Circulator mobile app Thursday morning to check on whether there would be a disruption and was told that the Banner route was running as usual.

“She said, ‘Yes, they’re running on time,’” Seifert said.

Seifert said she couldn’t understand how the city allowed service to be disrupted when it knew the contract would be turning over — and didn’t warn riders earlier about the interruption.

“That didn’t have to happen,” she said. “How could you not get this right? You have people getting to work an hour late.”

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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