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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)

Baltimore considers extending Veolia Circulator contract

Baltimore’s spending board is scheduled to vote to extend its contract with Veolia Transportation Inc. to continue to operate the debt-ridden Charm City Circulator.

If approved, it would extend the contract by 18 months at a cost of $12.4 million. The Board of Estimates is also being asked to approve a 1.6 percent increase in hourly payments needed because of an increase in the vendor’s labor costs.

The extension of the contract, which technically ended last month, is being requested so the Department of Transportation can prepare a new request for proposal to be sent out to out for competitive bids to run the free bus system.

“The BOE request will allow the Department of Transportation to thoroughly analyze and prepare the most comprehensive Request for Proposals (RFP) for competitive bids in order to better serve the citizens of Baltimore. This extension will have minimal impact to the Charm City Circulator’s operational costs,” Kathy Dominick, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, responded in an email.

The department did not address questions about why the Request for Proposal was not prepared before an extension of the contract was necessary.

Earlier this fall a report revealed the Circulator was running a deficit of more than $11 million that would increase to more than $73 million during the next decade. The major funding source for the Circulator, which started running in 2010, is an increase in the city’s parking tax along with a variety of grants.

The city also considered charging a $1 fee to ride the Circulator to help pay for the service, which connects downtown with major city hubs, such as Penn Station, Harbor East and Johns Hopkins Medical Campus. The city also discussed reducing or eliminating Circulator routes to help cut expenses.

But the proposed fee was opposed by developers and groups such as the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, which argue that charging a fee would defeat the purpose of having a Circulator. They say the bus is an amenity that makes it easier to live and work downtown and in nearby neighborhoods. Plans were also floated about possibly cutting down or eliminating some of the routes to make the Circulator cheaper to operate, but no concrete proposal ever materialized.

Baltimore’s spending board, which is controlled by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is expected to approve the contract extension. Rawlings-Blake has been a supporter of the Circulator and efforts to continue its current operations without charging for a ride.