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Towson Circulator concept loops back around as councilman makes push for 2020 pilot program

For years, people have floated the idea of a Towson Circulator, a free bus system modeled on the Charm City Circulator in Baltimore, that would shuttle people into the crowded downtown district.

The idea has stagnated in the past, but with a new Baltimore County executive in office, County Councilman David Marks believes the circulator’s time has come.

“I think the stars are aligned for the circulator,” Marks said in an interview.

Under Marks’ plan, the Towson Circulator would be a free bus system comprising two routes. One east-west route would run from The Shops at Kenilworth through downtown to Towson Place. The other would run north-south from the Drumcastle Government Center to Towson Town Center.

The program would require between $1.4 million and $2 million in initial capital costs to purchase vehicles, according to a Maryland Transit Administration report. Its annual operating costs would be between $2.4 million and $3.4 million, assuming buses ran every 15 minutes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, with no Sunday service.

Marks said those funds could come from the state’s Consolidated Transportation Program, which awards transportation grants to local jurisdictions.

Maryland Transit Administration spokesman Paul Shepard said in order to move forward with a circulator bus system, the county would need to submit a formal funding request in its fiscal year 2020 annual Transportation Plan.

“That funding request would then be reviewed by MDOT MTA and weighed against limited resources,” Shepard said.

The Greater Towson Committee, a local business alliance, studied the concept in 2015 and the Maryland Transit Administration published a feasibility report. That year, the County Council passed a resolution in support of a pilot program.

The 2015 feasibility study by the Maryland Transit Administration found that the greatest transportation need in Towson is not for a circulator within downtown Towson, but for a transit route that would shuttle people from outer residential areas into the downtown core, especially during evening hours.

With Marks’ proposed route, the circulator could increase the number boarding public transportation in Towson by about 9,000 people, the feasibility study said.

In 2016, The Baltimore Sun reported that Baltimore’s Charm City Circulator, which is used by more than 4 million passengers each year, cost the city $14 million per year after state and federal grants and advertising dollars. Last fall, the city filed a lawsuit against vendor Transdev Services Inc., alleging that it overbilled the city by $20 million.

But Marks says keeping the Towson Circulator small and “nimble” would avoid the procurement issues Baltimore has faced. And he thinks the program would be popular with residents.

“I believe it would work,” Marks said. “Not only do I think college students would ride it, but also more established residents. I think people want to take advantage of a free transit system.”

The late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz came out in opposition to the proposed program, citing cost and concerns that it would be redundant with existing MTA bus services.

Some of the area is served by MTA’s CityLink red and green bus lines as well as LocalLink 51. Towson University also operates a shuttle service for students that goes downtown about twice an hour.

Marks said Kamenetz’s opposition killed the circulator’s chances for funding. The idea came to a standstill, but Marks kept talking about it during his campaign for re-election. With the study complete, Marks said the idea is ready to move forward. All it needs is funding, Marks said, something that could be easier with the support of new County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

“County Executive Olszewski has consistently supported a circulator pilot,” said spokesman T.J. Smith.

Olszewski spoke about the circulator during his campaign, even writing on his website: “The Towson Circulator represents one model for improving public transportation, and as County Executive I will prioritize funding for these types of options and work with major employers and job centers to increase utilization and consider replicating in other areas of the County.”

The idea gained momentum when Olszewski’s transition team report came out last month with a recommendation to implement a pilot circulator program starting in Towson. But an anticipated multimillion dollar budget shortfall could put the idea at risk.

“The administration’s current focus is addressing the $81 million budget deficit facing the county, but the county executive is equally committed to programs like a circulator that will boost the quality of life for county residents,” Smith said.

Katie Pinheiro, the Greater Towson Committee’s executive director, said as major developments open downtown in the coming years the time is ripe for projects like a Towson Circulator.

Multiple major residential and commercial developments, including Towson Row and Circle East, are expected to finish construction and open their doors by 2020, which Pinheiro said will bring more residents and businesses to the crowded downtown core. The circulator would be one of a series of initiatives, like street cleaning and public art, that the Greater Towson Committee intends to implement to make downtown Towson more walkable to handle that inflow.

“We can’t widen the roads, there’s not much we can do, so we need to get a little creative,” Pinheiro said.

The Greater Towson Committee is working to get initiatives like street cleaning privately funded by the local business community, Pinheiro said, adding that she thinks businesses see the benefit of encouraging more people to walk around and shop.

“Towson is not going to be thriving and bustling unless we improve the walkability, and get people to park and then walk and stay and play,” she said.

asolomon@baltsun.com

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