City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young called Monday for a hearing on whether the city should charge passengers a fee to ride the Charm City Circulator, the popular bus service that now connects more than 4 million Baltimoreans and visitors to work, school and entertainment in the city for free.
Young wants to review the $7 million annual cost of running the service and determine whether the city can afford it. But his suggestion of charging $1 a trip drew criticism from riders and others.
"The city ought to tread very cautiously," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. "We spent years researching how to create a Circulator system and worked with the city to implement one, and we learned an important lesson: Charging any amount reduces ridership."
Since the Circulator debuted in January 2010, the service has grown to a fleet of 30 buses that run from Penn Station to Federal Hill, from City Hall to Fells Point and Johns Hopkins Hospital, from the Inner Harbor to Fort McHenry, and from Hollins Market to Harbor East.
About $6 million of the $7 million is funded by a December 2008 increase to the city's parking tax. The rest comes from grants and agreements with partners.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has called for an internal review of the service to examine the costs and consider expansion, a spokesman said. She won't know whether she would support charging a fee until she receives and evaluates that information, spokesman Kevin Harris said.
"It's premature," Harris said. "Let's get the information back and then make a decision."
The city's Department of Transportation is planning to seek approval from the city's spending panel Wednesday to apply for $2 million in state transit dollars to send the bus to new parts of the city.
Young, who introduced a City Council resolution Monday calling for a hearing, said he wanted to study the sustainability of the service. He said some have expressed concern about people who get on the Circulator and ride for hours, and about crime committed on the buses.
"He wants to balance the initial concept of the program with the evolving needs of the city," spokesman Lester Davis said. "He's open to a fee. He wants to bring folks in to see if instituting a fee would be too burdensome on the system."
The city's contract with Veolia Transportation to operate the Circulator is set to expire at the end of the year. No hearing date was scheduled.
Davis noted that the DC Circulator in Washington started out free but now charges a fare. Officials in Annapolis also are considering whether to introduce a fare to ride that city's Circulator Trolley.
Jason Curtis, president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, said neighbors have "always said there should be some kind of fee," and a $1 fare would be reasonable to help maintain such a valuable service.
"From a community perspective, the Circulator is awesome," he said. "It really helps bring a lot of the Inner Harbor visitors out into the individual neighborhoods, which I think really supports local business."
He said a fee could also cut down on peak-hour congestion on some routes and ensure that the convenience of the system is preserved for people who use it to get from one place to another.
"I don't think a dollar is going to break the bank. I think it could deter people who ride it because they have nothing to do," Curtis said. "There are times when residents can't get on because there are people who are just joyriding, for lack of a better term, and then they have to wait another 20 minutes and could be late for work. …
"We shouldn't be giving anything away for free with the taxes we have."
The Circulator's policy is to allow each rider to stay on for as long as one loop only.
Kevin Lindamood, president of Health Care for the Homeless, said he is skeptical of the motivation behind the resolution. He pointed to a line in the resolution that says an inquiry could "help address concerns about the inappropriate use of the Circulator by riders without any genuine destination."
"It seems to inappropriately target low-income riders who benefit from it just as much as tourists and upper-income residents," Lindamood said. "It doesn't seem to me there is any evidence the Circulator has been anything other than a success.
"All kinds of people in Baltimore are using the Circulator for all kinds of reasons, and it's certainly to get from Point A to Point B."
Kenneth Branch and Kevin Wells hopped off a Circulator on Lombard Street downtown on Monday afternoon. The couple had come from Fells Point; they wanted to stop at a drugstore before catching a No. 40 or No. 23 MTA bus for the rest of the trip home to Edmondson Village.
Branch said lots of people take the Circulator for short trips around the city that they once would have walked. If the Circulator starts charging, he said, "those that do ride it might stop."
"A lot of people don't have a dollar. It might be that day you want to ride it, and you don't have a dollar."
Anne Shifflett, 83, said she uses the Circulator "twice a day, maybe three times a day."
On Monday, she was riding home to Mount Vernon after visiting a pharmacy downtown. She also uses the Circulator to go to church, the doctor's office, the grocery store and the bank.
Were the city to start charging a fee, she said, "I would ride it a lot less. I couldn't do it."
Eighty-five percent of the Circulator's riders live in the city, according to the mayor's office. About a third of the riders use the service for pleasure, a survey commissioned by the city Department of Transportation found. Another third use it to commute to work, 19 percent to run errands and 10 percent to go to school.
The biggest reason they choose the Circulator? It's free.
Fowler, of the Downtown Partnership, said collecting money to ride would slow the service and keep people waiting longer between pickups. And a fare box would contribute more to air pollution, he said, because the buses would idle longer as drivers waited for passengers to pay.
"There are fewer cars on the street, and so much is tied to the fast, free and frequent service," he said. "Our city has become cutting-edge because of the Circulator system, and we all should pause before we return to the same old thing."
Fowler said he hoped Young's inquiry would lead to a discussion about more communities contributing to the Circulator's operations. The parking tax is levied against cars that park in public garages, Fowler said, and many of those are downtown.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who is one of nine co-sponsors on Young's resolution, said she wants the Circulator to stay free.
"It's coming to Charles Village in November, and I know the Hampden community wants it, too," Clarke said. "Don't start with a dollar when it's finally getting up to neighborhoods in North Baltimore."