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Baltimore’s Charm City Circulator adding six new buses next week to remedy persistent service issues

Tommy O'Malley, an installation manager with AP Corporation, wraps a new Charm City Circulator bus in a vinyl coating at the George L. Winfield Fleet Management Facility in east Baltimore. January 30, 2020
Tommy O'Malley, an installation manager with AP Corporation, wraps a new Charm City Circulator bus in a vinyl coating at the George L. Winfield Fleet Management Facility in east Baltimore. January 30, 2020(Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

Six new Charm City Circulator buses are set to hit Baltimore’s streets Monday.

The half-dozen vehicles, which cost a combined $2.6 million, will join 12 other city-owned buses in the free downtown bus system’s current fleet, and another six are expected to launch in the fall, according to the city Department of Transportation.

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The new buses, which arrive as the Circulator celebrates a decade in Baltimore, are intended to help remedy a rocky 2019 for the free downtown bus service. Ridership plummeted by nearly half last year following a shake-up in the system’s vendors that resulted in a shortage of buses, gaps in service and bus drivers lacking proper training.

New Charm City Circulator buses, wrapped in a vinyl coating, are parked at the George L. Winfield Fleet Management Facility in east Baltimore. January 30, 2020
New Charm City Circulator buses, wrapped in a vinyl coating, are parked at the George L. Winfield Fleet Management Facility in east Baltimore. January 30, 2020(Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

The purchase of new buses shows the city is “definitely committed to providing safe, efficient, reliable, clean transportation” and represents “an investment to our future,” said Charles Penny, transit chief of the city transportation department, which oversees the system.

“Transportation is a way to create upward mobility to our society," Penny said. "It drives the economy. It has an impact on the environment. It’s not just buses; this is a commitment to a belief in the value and the importance of transportation.”

City officials blamed the bus shortage on the Circulator’s previous operator, Transdev, for failing to perform the required maintenance on the city-owned buses. Baltimore declined to renew Transdev’s contract in 2018 and sued the company, alleging it had overbilled the city $20 million for thousands of hours the service had not operated since 2010. Baltimore City Circuit Court Associate Judge Wanda Keys Heard sent the lawsuit to arbitration in December 2018.

Baltimore paid the new vendor, Rockville-based RMA Worldwide Transportation, $3.4 million under an extended emergency contract to run the service before awarding the company a three-year, $26 million contract last summer to be the Circulator’s permanent operator. The city uses general funds and parking revenue to pay for the free bus system, which runs at a deficit. It is separate from the state-run Maryland Transit Administration regional bus system.

Passengers took about 1.27 million trips on the four-route Circulator system in the 2019 fiscal year, down 48% from the 2.4 million trips in 2018, according to the city Department of Transportation. The city says its own data are inconsistent and unreliable, though, because it was not counting riders during the first four months of RMA operating the service.

Due to the bus shortage after RMA Worldwide took over the system in 2018, the city had to lease an additional six shuttles from the chauffeuring company. It will continue to do so after the new buses come online, Penny said.

Tommy O'Malley, an installation manager with AP Corporation, wraps a new Charm City Circulator bus in a vinyl coating at the George L. Winfield Fleet Management Facility in east Baltimore. January 30, 2020
Tommy O'Malley, an installation manager with AP Corporation, wraps a new Charm City Circulator bus in a vinyl coating at the George L. Winfield Fleet Management Facility in east Baltimore. January 30, 2020(Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

“We’re going to prioritize Circulator buses [over the unmarked black or white RMA shuttles], but preventative maintenance is scheduled,” he said. “We’ll keep them on board but continue to evaluate what is the best use for these buses. Having a bus there is much more important than not having a bus. When you’re out there in the rain, and there’s no canopy for you, you want a bus.”

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The new Circulator buses have 34 seats, wheelchair ramps and areas for people with disabilities, and bike racks and illuminated destination signs on the front. The drivers have all been trained on the new buses, DOT spokesman German Vigil said. The vehicles will arrive wrapped with a new logo and slogan — “Let Us Take You There” — which won an online contest in which 4,300 people voted.

After the second batch of new buses arrive in the fall, the department’s Fleet Management Plan calls for the purchase of three new buses a year until 2025 to replace the old Orion buses buses, which launched in 2012, Penny said.

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