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The Circulator's troubling finances

The Charm City Circulator bus system in and around downtown Baltimore is clean, reliable and attractive, and people have come to depend on it. The buses are useful for tourists but also have become a primary way for people in their coverage area to commute and run errands. In all, it's an important amenity for Baltimore to have, particularly as it tries to attract and retain the burgeoning population of millennials downtown.

That said, there's something disquieting about Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's decision to save the Banner Route, which was meant to be a temporary measure during the War of 1812 bicentennial events, in part by diverting money from other parts of the city's budget. It's not that we begrudge the people of Locust Point the kind of efficient transit the Circulator represents. It's that the episode underscores the extent to which the finances of the entire Circulator system have become problematic.

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There's no small irony to the fact that Baltimore's high quality, modern, Circulator bus, which runs predominantly in well-off (and in some cases, glitzy) neighborhoods is free, while the relatively antiquated, delay-prone MTA buses — the only public transportation option for many who live in the inner city — charge a fare (which recently went up).

At its inception, though, the Circulator had an answer for that. Officials at the time said it would be funded almost entirely through higher parking taxes and through contributions to a fund sponsored by private developers. Thus, although the downtown workers, conventioneers and tourists who were expected to be the main users of the system wouldn't pay a fare, they would indirectly fund its operations through other means.

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Initially, the city expected the Circulator to cost a bit less than $6 million a year, which is more or less what a parking tax increase championed by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon was expected to bring in. But an analysis by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration last year found that as service has expanded, costs have ballooned to about $14 million a year. The city has managed to cobble together some additional money in the form of state and federal grants — which, of course, aren't guaranteed forever — and sales of advertising on the buses. But most of the cash to cover the system's deficit has come from the city's general fund — money that could otherwise be spent on schools, rec centers, police and so on.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake has resisted calls to institute a fare for the Circulator, and we have also come to believe that keeping the service free is probably the right call. Adding fare boxes would slow down operations and rob the system of the very efficiency that has made it attractive in the first place. Instead, she hired a consultant to find ways to reduce system costs, and he suggested eliminating the Banner route, reducing service on the Orange and Green lines and expanding the Purple Line north to Charles Village. In all, that would have amounted to $3.1 million in annual savings, dropping the city's general fund contribution to $2.9 million a year.

The new plan, though, effectively wipes out all those savings. This year, the mayor is able to tap some money that had been set aside in the operating budget to begin building up reserves for bus replacement and to retire some of the system's debt, but that is obviously not a sustainable solution. And dedicating more city general funds to keep the Circulator going isn't a just solution. Those who have no reliable and efficient means to get from their homes to jobs shouldn't be subsidizing through their tax dollars a bus system that primarily benefits those who already have other options.

The mayor has indicated a desire to see increased contributions to the system from those business owners who benefit from the Circulator, either as a recruitment tool for workers or as a means to bring in customers. She's right to do so and should explore some formalized means to assess companies along the Circulator route to help pay for the service, perhaps through something like a community benefits district model. It would also be appropriate for the state to commit to some long-term grant funding for the Circulator, given that it fills in some gaps in the MTA system.

More broadly, though, the city and state need to collaborate to improve transportation options where there are few. Former Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration had begun a process to study the MTA's bus routes in hopes of better aligning them with today's employment opportunities. Gov. Larry Hogan should follow through with that effort, particularly in light of his decision to withdraw state support for Baltimore's long-planned Red Line light rail. The ultimate goal here should be not just that the Circulator is self sustaining but also that everyone in Baltimore has access to the kind of efficient, modern transportation it provides.

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