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Audit: Baltimore transportation department couldn't back up Circulator bus and street light performance claims

The Baltimore auditor said Wednesday that after reviewing a dozen performance claims by the city transportation department — including the adequacy of street lighting and numbers of people riding Circulator buses — she was unable to conclude in most cases whether the claims were accurate.

On four other goals, Auditor Audrey Askew told the city spending board, the department missed its targets.

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The department reported that 3.4 million people rode the free Circulator buses in both 2016 and 2017. Those figures weren’t supported by documentation, the auditor said. Even if they were accurate, they fell short of targets of 4.2 million and 3.8 million riders for those years.

When it came to street lighting, the department reported falling well short of a 90 percent goal for inspected streets having sufficient lighting. But the auditor found even the reported figure — 50 percent — wasn’t backed up by records.

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Transportation Director Michelle Pourciau said told the Board of Estimates that her team had already put fixes into place in many cases.

Charm City Circulator service was canceled on the system’s Green and Banner routes and severely limited on the Purple and Orange routes with less than 24 hours’ notice, leaving riders frustrated, during the transition to a new bus vendor Thursday.

“These findings cover four major areas that go back a few years ago,” she said. “We’ve made significant progress in making improvements in these areas and now have better documentation.”

In addition to the free bus service and street lighting, the audit sought to examine the department’s success at running a boat docking service at the Inner Harbor and managing permits to dig into city streets.

A new contractor has been hired to run the bus service and the department is switching to LED street lights, which will remedy problems found by the auditor, Poruciau said. Before it hired the new contractor, the city sued the previous operator of the Circulator, alleging that it overcharged for years.

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Baltimore is suing Transdev Services Inc., the company that runs the Charm City Circulator, alleging it overbilled the city $20 million on the free bus service.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said at her regular news conference after the board meeting that she was grateful for the auditor’s work.

“I want to make sure we are spending the city’s money correctly,” she said.

Askew wrote in her report that the transportation department’s internal systems were not good enough to “monitor, control, and report valid and reliable information.”

Going block by block, crews in bucket trucks are converting 70,000 Baltimore street lights from sodium vapor lights to long-lasting, energy-saving LEDs. Critics complain the new lights don't illuminate the area as well.

She urged the department to come up with ways to maintain accurate records.

The audit also found that in budget documents, officials greatly over-reported the number of boats using the docking service. The service has consistently underperformed — losing $255,000 in 2016 and $163,000 in 2017, according to the report — and the auditor suggested the city might want to turn it over to a contractor.

Pourciau said new people had been hired and that the department was analyzing the program.

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