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Some developers believe the Charm City Circulator has been a big factor in encouraging people to live downtown. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Possible Circulator fee unpopular with developers, businesses

A possible charge to ride the Charm City Circulator isn’t sitting well with developers and downtown advocates.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young has introduced legislation calling for an investigation into the expenses of running the free bus service that connects downtown with major city hubs, such as Penn Station, Harbor East and Johns Hopkins Medical Campus. Young told a council meeting Monday that a charge, perhaps $1, might make sense.

“We’ve heard from many developers and property owners who depend on the service to attract new residents and also employers, and we shouldn’t forget the number of conventions that are drawn here by the availability of the Circulator,” said J. Kirby Fowler Jr., president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. “All of these people coming in, and are reliant on the circulator, are improving the revenue generation for the entire city.”

He said the partnership, which was a major advocate for establishing the Circulator, operated a shuttle downtown more than a decade ago that required a fee that eventually shut down. The lesson learned from the experience that any fee, even a quarter, makes people less likely to use the service.

Currently, it costs around $7 million annually to operate the free buses. The majority of funding comes from an increase in parking taxes — drawn generally from the downtown area — and the rest is made up through a variety of grants.

Fowler contended that the Circulator already has attracted more people to live downtown who contribute to the city’s tax base. He said he’s not opposed to expanding the routes, but that any extension would need a new funding source outside the parking tax.

Steven Bloom, operating partner for PMC Property Group in Baltimore, said he believes the free bus is a selling point for recently redeveloped apartments in downtown and Mount Vernon. He said four of the last five deals done by the group in Baltimore included little or no parking, and that having a free, efficient way to get around town is a big bonus for residents renting those units.

“We clearly use it as a leasing tool, both Zip Car memberships and the Circulator. So our occupancy is strong … in buildings where we don’t offer any parking — there’s limited off-site parking — but the Circulator is clearly something that our tenants use,” Bloom said.

Bloom, who uses the circulator to visit PMC’s various projects and go to City Hall, is also wary of charging to ride the Circulator. He said that as he was walking out of the building at 301 N. Charles St. this morning and residents were discussing the proposal and weren’t thrilled with the idea of paying even $1 to ride.

“I think something free to these young tenants goes a far way, and I think a dollar could make a difference,” Bloom said.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said looking into the operations of the Circulator is part of being a responsible legislative body. He said Young is a big supporter of the Circulator, but that he wants to make sure the program is efficient and that the city is getting the most for its money.

Davis said that this isn’t new, and that Young has always believed the operations should be routinely examined, and floated the idea of charging a fare to ride the Circulator previously. He also stressed there’s no concrete proposal for a fee and dismissed some of the strongest objections from the private sector.

“Those kind of sentiments are really premature, and almost border on being hyperbolic. What the council president is doing he thinks is very responsible, which is what elected officials really should do, which is every so often to peek under the hood,” Davis said.