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Towson’s long-awaited bus service has one missing part: dedicated funding | COMMENTARY

Baltimore County officials unveil the Towson Loop, the no-fare circulator bus that is expected to start service this fall. June 23, 2021. (Cameron Goodnight/Baltimore Sun).
Baltimore County officials unveil the Towson Loop, the no-fare circulator bus that is expected to start service this fall. June 23, 2021. (Cameron Goodnight/Baltimore Sun). (Cameron Goodnight)

For more than a decade, advocates in Baltimore County have been pushing for a Towson version of Baltimore’s Charm City Circulator, a local bus service aimed at both augmenting existing Maryland Transit Administration ridership and getting more people out of their cars. By this fall, the newly-rebranded “Towson Loop” is expected to hit the roads. Many of the 26-seat buses have already been delivered to the Carney Park & Ride Lot for temporary storage. A contractor to run the two-route, six-days-a-week service could be named as early as next week. In short, these are exciting times for those who want to see Towson evolve from car-oriented suburb to true suburban edge city, employment center, health care mecca and college town. There’s just one detail missing: Who is going to pick up the tab?

For the 12 months ahead, that’s not really a question. County government has already committed to covering the bill for the first year of service, and a federal grant has paid for a dozen buses. Like the Charm City Circulator, there will be no fare charged to riders. The exact cost to run, store and maintain the buses isn’t yet known because the operating contract has not been awarded, but it’s likely to be around $3.5 million. That’s not going to bankrupt a county with a $4.2 billion annual operating budget. Nor would its projected $27.5 million cost over the first seven years of service, as the two routes — the north-south purple line and east-west orange line — are covered by four buses each Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to midnight on weekdays and 10 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays.

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But dipping into general funds is hardly the model to follow in the long-term, particularly given County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s ambition to provide similar bus service in other parts of the county including, perhaps, Owings Mills, White Marsh and Sparrows Point. What’s truly needed is a dedicated local funding source as well as support from the MTA, which apportions federal transit funds statewide. That’s what other jurisdictions have done, and there are a number of reasons for it, beginning with equity. The Charm City Circulator gets significant funding from the MTA and from downtown parking fees, for example. And the MTA has kicked in even more in local transit aid to systems like Prince George’s County’s “TheBus” ($10.3 million annually) to Montgomery County’s “Ride On” ($27.9 million) thanks to annual Federal Transit Administration aid.

Unfortunately, the MTA has yet to commit funding toward the Towson Loop. (An MTA spokesperson said the county is welcome to apply for operating support next year). Nor has money been pledged by some of the biggest local beneficiaries, including Towson University and Goucher College, Greater Baltimore Medical Center, University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, The Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital and the various shopping centers, Towson Town Center among them. That may soon change, particularly once the bus system demonstrates its usefulness with a projected ridership of 250,000 to 300,000 annually. But it also suggests that Towson ought to have its own Business Improvement District that could set up a special tax assessment to help cover the costs.

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Some business owners may balk at that thought considering how much they’ve suffered under the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s clearly the best way to keep those buses in motion in the years ahead. In such a sprawling county, it’s inevitable that taxpayers living far from Towson Circle may ask, why does the county seat get bus service while my neighborhood does not? Nor should issues of social justice be overlooked considering Towson’s relative prosperity and demographics (about 75% white, according to the most recent U.S. Census data). On the other hand, charging fares would likely diminish ridership. Far better to ask more from those who have the most to gain.

Still, this is a big step for Baltimore County. Where once local residents felt threatened by the presence of public transit (more than a few predicted light rail’s chief impact would be to import city crime when it first opened in 1992), there is now a healthy desire for it — along with making communities more walkable and bike-able. Mr. Olszewski deserves some credit for his advocacy and perseverance. So does Councilman David Marks, who reports that he has received not a single call from a constituent objecting to the Loop. But then credit is due a lot of average people living in Towson who recognize that times are changing. Transformative mixed-use developments like Towson Circle and Towson Row are quickly turning the community’s old ways — like becoming a ghost town at night and on weekends — into a distant memory.

Perhaps a blistering hot week in late June at the tail end of a global pandemic is a good time to appreciate the joys of both social contact and doing something serious about climate change. The Towson Loop is a small step in addressing these needs. It deserves to be placed on a financially sustainable path.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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