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Fowler: Don’t double-tax downtown Baltimore for extended Circulator

Kirby Fowler

Kirby Fowler, president of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (The Daily Record/Rich Dennison)

A key supporter of the Charm City Circulator said Thursday that a sustainable funding source must be found if the free bus system is to continue operating outside the core of downtown.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc., said his organization opposes increasing the city’s parking tax 4 percent to maintain Circulator service to areas outside of downtown.

“It’s an attempt to double-tax the core downtown for service that goes well beyond the core of downtown,” Fowler said.

Baltimore’s Department of Transportation released plans Wednesday to eliminate two routes and shorten another to cover a $6 million gap in funding for the system that routinely struggles with budget woes.

Under the proposal the city would cancel the Banner Route that runs between Locust Point and downtown; the Green Line, which serves downtown, Fells Point and Johns Hopkins Hospital, would be eliminated; and the northern spur of the Purple Line between Penn Station and 33rd Street would be cut.

In 2008, the Downtown Partnership played a key role in lining up support for the initial parking tax that was supposed to pay for the Circulator, which was conceived to serve roughly the downtown area.

Now that the Circulator has expanded, Fowler said, the city needs to find a sustainable funding source to which other communities benefiting from the service can contribute. He said he would like to find a way to continue service to communities on the Green Line who were part of the initial service plan.

That puts the partnership at odds with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s administration, which argues there’s a simple way to stop the service reductions — pass a parking tax increase. The administration has proposed raising the current parking tax paid at garages and parking lots from 20 percent to 24 percent.

Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for the mayor, said Rawlings-Blake remains committed to provide the free service and that the City Council has the power to stop the cuts from happening.

“We have to make some choices,” McCarthy said.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said there was a memorandum of understanding signed when a parking tax increase was approved in 2013 that stated the city would not explore another increase until 2020. He said Young doesn’t intend to break that agreement for a free service that only serves “a fraction” of city residents.

“I don’t think the votes are there to pass [the tax increase]” Davis said.

Threats of the elimination of the service come a year after Rawlings-Blake found room in the budget to continue the Banner Route, originally funded through a federal grant as part of the War of 1812 bicentennial festivities, and the extension of the Purple Line to Charles Village.

Local transportation advocates portrayed potential service cuts as another blow to a city already struggling with inadequate mass transit.

Last year Gov. Larry Hogan nixed the proposed $2.9 billion Red Line light-rail project through the city that advocates called a crucial step in providing Baltimore with a modern reliable mass transit system. The state has since started work revamping the Maryland Transit Administration bus lines in the city via a $135 million overhaul called BaltimoreLink.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, said the Circulator is only part of a larger conversation about failing mass transit in the region. She called the Circulator “beloved” and said that service cuts would be unfortunate.

“Anytime we lose transit in the city it’s a bad thing,” Schmidt-Perkins said.

The nonprofit Bikemore, which advocates for a more “bikeable” city and greater public transit access, criticized plans to cut the service and urged the City Council to pass the parking tax increase.

“Baltimore’s parking rates are already significantly less than neighboring cities. We cannot continue to subsidize the true cost of single occupancy vehicle use at the expense of congestion reduction, improved air quality, and transportation options for our residents,” Bikemore wrote in a statement posted to its website.