Free downtown buses on tap

The Baltimore Sun

Tourists and city residents would be able to ride through downtown Baltimore for free on a new shuttle bus system that officials said yesterday would begin carrying passengers by next summer.

The system, which would include at least three downtown routes with 10-minute waits at each stop, would be paid for in part by increasing a city tax levied on parking spaces.

"It's about trying to make it convenient for people to move around," said Mayor Sheila Dixon, adding that she hopes the shuttle would also reduce traffic congestion and vehicle emissions.

Transportation officials briefed City Council members on the proposal in March, but at the time there were few details about the fare, the routes or the effect on the parking tax.

Routes proposed yesterday are subject to change, but generally the system would include an east-west route along Pratt and Lombard streets and a north-south route along Charles and St. Paul streets. A third line would run from President Street to Harbor East and then up Broadway to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"We need new ways to move people around downtown, and we need cost-effective ways to do it, too," said J. Kirby Fowler Jr., president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. "What can be simpler than a free system?"

Shuttle services have worked in other cities, and some neighborhood shuttles have been successful in Baltimore. Washington has three low-fare circulator routes. But similar efforts in Baltimore have failed to capture the attention of riders in the past.

In 2002, the city used a $5.9 million state grant to create the Downtown Area Shuttle, or DASH, which carried employees and "leisure riders" from fringe parking lots into the city.

Money for the program dried up, and the system was discontinued in 2005. Another route that carried workers from a parking lot into the city was more successful, according to reports at the time.

This time, city officials said, they would make the system more attractive by limiting wait times to 10 minutes and connecting bus routes to water taxi terminals. The system would cost $4.5 million to $6 million annually to run.

Drivers who park in Baltimore - including those who park in private garages and lots - pay a $15 flat monthly tax if they have a monthly contract or 12 percent of the ticket fee if they do not. The city collects about $16 million a year from that tax.

Under a proposal that is expected to go to the City Council this summer, the city will propose a flat 15.5 percent tax on the cost of all parking, from hourly tickets to monthly contracts.

The city's transportation department has issued a request for proposals to find companies to manage the system. Dixon's administration has earmarked more than $3 million that could be used to purchase buses, and officials said they hope to have the first route in service by July 2009.

The east-west route would run along Pratt Street near the B&O; Railroad Museum. Courtney B. Wilson, executive director of the museum, said the system would allow him to direct tourists to other parts of the city without having to ask them to drive.

"What a great benefit to both the city and to all these great cultural institutions," Wilson said. "You know how I feel about this project today? I feel like the B&O; Railroad Museum is about to become waterfront property."

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