Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake reversed Monday a controversial plan to drastically cut the Charm City Circulator, saying she would instead keep the popular service free and mostly intact.
Rawlings-Blake told a crowd of more than 150 in Locust Point that she would find money in the city's $2.5 billion operating budget to continue the service with less severe changes.
"I had this nagging feeling, knowing that the investments we had anticipated from the state weren't going to be there, that made me redouble my efforts to take another look at the Banner route and the cuts that we had proposed in this year's budget to the Circulator as a whole," Rawlings-Blake said.
City officials had planned to eliminate the Banner route, which runs from Locust Point to the Inner Habor, and reduce service on the Green and Orange routes, which connect East and West Baltimore to downtown.
Instead, officials said, the Banner route will continue to run regularly during peak weekday hours. The Purple line — the service's most popular route, running from Federal Hill to Penn Station — is to be extended up to 33rd Street this fall.
While the service will remain free for users, some wait times between buses may increase as the Rawlings-Blake administration looks for ways to cover costs, city officials said. The changes could take effect as early as this month, but officials couldn't provide an exact date.
Anita Shahan, 59, says she depends on the Banner route to get to doctor's appointments, go grocery shopping or get downtown from her house on Richardson Street in Locust Point. On Monday, she took the bus to pick up prescriptions.
"This is like a blessing to people," Shahan said. "There's a lot of us who may not have money for bus fare. These Circulator buses make everything so convenient. It's not just for tourists, but those of us who have worked and paid taxes."
The Circulator, which serves more than 4 million people a year, has run a deficit since it launched in January 2010. The mayor set out late last year to address the funding gap, which has grown to more than $11 million.
The service costs the city about $14 million a year.
Rawlings-Blake spokesman Howard Libit said the city will shift about $3 million toward the Circulator by putting off some debt payments and setting less money aside for the purchase of new buses. He couldn't immediately say how that would affect equipment replacement plans.
The rest of the money to operate the service will come from the city's general fund and tax revenue from Baltimore parking garages, he said.
Libit said Rawlings-Blake wants to tap the private sector for contributions from businesses that employ people who frequently use the service.
Rawlings-Blake also wants Gov. Larry Hogan to continue studying efficiencies within the public bus system that the Maryland Transit Administration runs. The study could help the Circulator address gaps in the public system without duplicating service, Libit said.
City officials are developing a request for proposals for a new service provider as a way to find additional savings. The system is currently operated by Transdev, formerly known as Veolia.
The mayor said jokingly that her phone had been ringing off the hook with calls from Councilman Eric T. Costello, who represents Federal Hill, Locust Point and downtown, and has been a fierce opponent of the reductions.
"I'm glad we were able to make it work," Costello said. "The Banner route is a critical link between the South Baltimore peninsula and the rest of the city."
Libit said the mayor also was concerned about access to public transportation after Hogan decided not to contribute state funding for construction of the Red Line light rail, effectively killing the project. The $3 billion line was to have connected the city east to west.
"She appreciates and recognizes the importance of public transit," Libit said. "That's why she said, 'Go back and see if there is a way.'"
The mayor's comments come in advance of a series of public hearings the city's Department of Transportation has planned for this week and next to get public reaction to the route restructuring. The city paid a consultant $130,000 to come up with ways to save money on the Circulator.
The biggest change will be made to the Banner route, which was slated for elimination on July 20. The route, which was created to add transportation options during the bicentennial celebrations of the War of 1812, connects downtown to Fort McHenry.
The Banner route will operate from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in regular intervals during weekdays, according to city transportation director William Johnson. During off-peak hours and over the weekends, he said, buses will run hourly.
The Banner route, with about 300,000 riders a year, is the Circulator's least popular line. About 1.7 million take the Purple line. The Orange line gets about 1.4 million riders, followed by the Green route with 800,000.
A portion of the Green route — the longest and most inefficient route, Johnson said — also will run hourly during nonpeak hours.
The portion of the route between Harbor East and Johns Hopkins Hospital will continue regular service. The portion of the line between Harbor East and the Edison parking lot will run with regular intervals between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays.
It will run hourly during other operating hours, Johnson said.
The Circulator's weekday operating hours will be adjusted to 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Some minor changes will be made to the Orange route, which runs downtown east to west, Johnson said. At least one stop along that route will be moved.
Johnson also said the wait time between stops across the Circulator system could increase from about 10 minutes to as long as 30. The longest waits are expected along the Banner route, he said.
The changes likely will be delayed from the July 20 start date as the city finalizes its plans, Johnson said.
Kevin Macartney, the president of the Seton Hill Association, rides the Purple and Green lines and takes the MARC train to work. He said the circulator is a great alternative to an inefficient MTA bus system.
"I want to see the whole Circulator staying intact until the MTA gets its act together," he said.
Patrick Hardy, 68, said canceling the proposed Circulator cuts is the right move for the mayor.
"It would be nice for the ones who really need it," Hardy said Monday while riding the Banner route home from picking up groceries.
Jennifer Swearingen, and her husband, Ryan, took the Circulator to see Fort McHenry with their three children. The family was visiting from Indiana.
When Swearingen saw the signs warning about the Banner route's elimination, she said, she felt lucky to be able to use the service.
"It made visiting downtown a lot easier," Swearingen said. "We didn't have to navigate the streets or find parking."
Greg Sileo, president of the Locust Point Civic Association, said he was relieved to hear the Banner line had avoided elimination.
"The community associations on the South Baltimore peninsula worked tirelessly to mobilize around this issue and advocate to the mayor, and we're glad our voices were heard," Sileo said.