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Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz poses for a photo in his office in Towson.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz poses for a photo in his office in Towson. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Though the idea is popular with business and community groups, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz says he sees no need to establish a free Towson circulator bus.

In an interview, Kamenetz said he doesn't think the downtown area is built out and populated enough to justify a free circulator system, especially with Maryland Transit Administration buses and Baltimore Collegetown Network shuttle buses already running in the area.

"I think the question is, 'Who are we transporting?'" Kamenetz said. "The expectation is that people will be able to walk."

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said he will ask the state to provide the county $74 million — three years worth of funding — to accelerate the completion of $166 million worth of air conditioning and other projects in 36 public schools by 2019. "Whatever you were going to give us over three years, give it to us now," Kamenetz said his pitch will be to the Interagency Committee on School Construction, which administers the state's Public School Construction Program.

He said he doesn't see traffic as a major problem, even with 45,000 people working downtown. "I think right now, it's quite manageable," he said. "We don't have any failed intersections. It seems to work pretty well. At first glance, [the circulator] seems like a good idea, but when you drill down, maybe it isn't."

The Democrat also said he is mindful that the Charm City Circulator in Baltimore, which serves more than 4 million people a year and costs the city about $14 million a year, has been operating at a deficit that has grown to more than $11 million since the city launched the service in 2010.

A circulator for Towson's downtown core has the support of the County Council, which in October unanimously passed legislation to endorse a one-year Towson circulator pilot program, at a projected cost of $2 million to $3 million. The pilot was envisioned as starting in 2018 with two routes, one between Kenilworth Mall and Loch Raven Village and the other between Towson Town Center and Drumcastle Center on York Road.

Community and business groups, including the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Towson Committee, have been receptive to the concept of a free circulator bus.

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The Baltimore County Council on Monday passed legislation to endorse a pilot program for a Towson circulator.

Councilman David Marks, who represents the Towson area, has said a transportation component is essential as the downtown Towson area grows, with a new multiplex of movie theaters already open and the $300 million Towson Row project among many housing, shopping and restaurant developments on the horizon.

Last year, the Towson Circulator Study Committee, a subcommittee of the Greater Towson Committee, issued a report stating that "the potential for a Towson Circulator/Shuttle exists, and that it could benefit the Towson community and the continued vitality and attractiveness of the core of the Towson."

Pat Keller, deputy chief administrative officer at the Maryland Transit Administration, is overseeing an MTA study of the idea of a circulator. Keller said he expects a final report on the MTA study to be issued in February or March and that it will focus on such questions as whether a circulator is feasible, what the routes would be, and, "Does it have a future?"

Keller declined to pass judgment or characterize the findings of the report, saying it has not yet been presented to the Department of Transportation. He did say the idea of a circulator "is all related to development," and that it might be premature, a least this year, to put in a state funding bill.

"It would be hard to get something like that going" in this legislative session," he said. "It's going to take time — a circulator or any other project."

Marks, a Republican, said he is seeking full or partial funding from the state for a Towson circulator. "I think the state would really prefer to have a county match," in funding, he added. "I'm hoping that County Executive Kamenetz will be a partner in helping to get it done. Hopefully, he's keeping an open mind."

Marks, who was chief of staff for the Maryland Department of Transportation under former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said he does not necessarily disagree with Kamenetz's take on the need for a circulator at the present time, but that his own vision for improving mass transit in the Towson area includes a circulator as well as road resurfacing projects and more bicycle lanes.

"If the circulator is not part of the solution, then what is the plan?"

For Kamenetz, the plan involves jurisdictions together developing a regional strategy for mass transit to relieve gridlock on the Baltimore Beltway and Interstate 95. Kamenetz, who chairs the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, said he believes that mass transit shouldn't just be for Baltimore City. "We are all in this together as a region," he said.

Marks agreed that Towson is not built out, but said that with housing and mixed-use developments in the works, "it certainly will be by 2018," when the pilot circulator program would begin.

Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled what he described as a "transformative" $135 million investment in an improved Baltimore bus system Thursday --seeking to fill a mass transit void left by his cancellation of the Red Line light rail project.

Del. Steve Lafferty, a Democrat, said he believes a pilot study should be done sooner rather than later, possibly even this year.

"You need to proactively take steps instead of waiting for gridlock," he said.

Lafferty said many of his constituents bypass Towson for Hunt Valley and other shopping destinations because "just getting into town is difficult in places. Their interest in getting into town has taken a back seat to office workers."

Mike Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, said he's not concerned yet about Kamenetz's reticence to ask the state for circulator funding.

"We know there's a lot of priorities [such as] schools that need help," including aging Towson High School, he said. "Obviously, there's a lot of roads that need to be repaired."

If circulator funding is not a priority for the county, "I don't know that we're going to cry about it," Ertel said. "But at some point, we're going to have to address the issue of gridlock in Towson."

The Towson Chamber of Commerce has taken no position as yet on the circulator and is seeking more information about it before making a decision, Executive Director Nancy Hafford said.

Katie Pinheiro, executive director of the Greater Towson Committee, a business community promotion group, said she doesn't think funding for the circulator is a priority yet, "because it's not something that will be implemented this year or even next year. I think doing it right is everybody's goal."

Pinheiro said she hopes Kamenetz will warm up to the idea of a circulator as 2018 draws nearer. "I hope he's just being cautious," she said.

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