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One of the marvels of the Charm City Circulator is its simplicity. The routes are circular and relatively short, the wait is brief and the fare is gratis. Downtown visitors can choose to ride at the spur of the moment without worrying about exact change or transfers or fare cards. And they'll never be stranded, as the next ride is no more than 15 minutes away.

No wonder people love it. It's understandable — especially to those unaccustomed to riding buses or other forms of public transportation or even unfamiliar with Baltimore. In a typical month, the system boasts more than 335,000 riders on four routes, the most popular of which runs from Penn Station to Federal Hill.

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Given that success, it's not surprising that the prospect of requiring Circulator riders to pay a $1 fare each time they board is not exactly winning rave reviews. The Downtown Partnership and others in the business community are dead-set against it, and it isn't difficult to understand their point of view. Basically, why mess with success?

But there's something to be said for Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young's call for a hearing on whether to start charging that fare. Even if it's not a particularly good idea — and we're inclined to believe it isn't — the council needs to have a serious conversation about what the Circulator can and can't do for this city.

Right now, the Circulator is primarily a service for downtown. That's appropriate given that it's paid for mostly by higher parking fees in city garages. That kind of fee-for-service represents a closed loop of financing — downtown visitors mainly pay for it, and downtown visitors reap the advantages. This isn't a perfect fit — after all, some federal money, passed through the state, is involved as well — but in principle, it's not a free ride. The fare is simply paid at the moment you park, not when you board.

Yet the shuttle service has been such a success that others want to extend it further from downtown. Such an expansion (to Hampden or Charles Village, for instance) would be costly and, unless millions of dollars more is spent to expand the fleet and add drivers, existing service would inevitably suffer. That's where a fare might come in handy (although it's somewhat offset by the added cost of installing fare boxes on buses and hiring people to count and keep track of the money).

But how far could it go? At some point, the City Council might observe that Baltimore already has a bus system operated by the Maryland Transit Administration, a state agency. MTA buses remain the most important and most frequently used form of public transportation around Charm City, and if the Circulator is simply to become a slightly cheaper version of an MTA bus, why have a separate system run by a private contractor on behalf of the city at all?

We've also wondered whether Baltimore takes full advantage of the Charm City Circulator in other ways. In some cities, such downtown bus systems promote tourist attractions, often hosting "ambassadors" who narrate the sites or representatives of local businesses handing out restaurant samples or other freebies. Why not make it a bit more fun to ride? It's also not clear whether the system has done enough to attract local sponsors and advertisers to help offset its cost.

Might it be better integrated with MTA bus service? Might some routes be trimmed? (Going all the way to Fort McHenry now that the "Star-Spangled" 200th anniversary celebration has passed seems a bit excessive, for example.) Might buses run more frequently so that riders never have to wait more than 10 minutes instead of 15?

All those concerns are worth exploring in a public forum, but we agree with advocates who recommend that Mr. Young and his fellow council members tread carefully on the matter of a fare. The day the Circulator is no longer a convenient, spur-of-the-moment choice for visitors who have other options, it will be viewed as just another city bus with all the discomfort that implies. The Circulator is helping attract new residents to the downtown — the latest apartment developments tout it — and that's an investment that will likely pay off for Baltimore in the long run.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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