Cutbacks to Charm City Circulator Not Sitting Well with Many in South Baltimore

| June 29, 2015 | 0 Comments
Image Courtesy of CharmCityCirculator.com

Image Courtesy of CharmCityCirculator.com

In early May, the Baltimore City Department of Transportation (DOT) announced drastic changes to the Charm City Circulator that will take effect on July 20th, changes which are not sitting well with many in South Baltimore. DOT director William Johnson announced that the Banner Route, which connects the Inner Harbor to Fort McHenry and goes through the Federal Hill, Key Highway, Riverside and Locust Point communities, would be eliminated. In addition, the Purple Line, which runs through Federal Hill and South Baltimore, will be extended to the north to 33rd St., however, a once-proposed extension from Fort Ave. to Wells St. was not included in the changes.

“I’m in support of of retaining the Banner Route in some capacity, but ultimately this was Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s administration’s decision,” said District 11 Councilman Eric Costello. “I am doing all the lobbying I can, but I’m not optimistic.”

In regards to the Purple Line extension to Wells St., “I was pushing really hard for it, but it doesn’t look like we are going to get it,” said Costello. “But, I will keep fighting for it.”

Costello noted that a bad round of buses that were purchased was largely to blame for the Circulator’s financial problems.

The Banner Route was largely funded by a federal grant for National Parks to celebrate the 200-year anniversaries of the War of 1812 and the Battle of Baltimore in 1814, funding which will expire on July 20th. “The route was always set to go away, but people really built a reliance on it. To eliminate it without looking at other options for transportation doesn’t make sense,” said Costello.

Many in the area are expressing their displeasure with the Mayor’s decision. A letter spearheaded by the Locust Point Civic Association asking the Mayor to reconsider her decision was cosigned by the Riverside Neighborhood Association, the Key Highway Community Association, the American Visionary Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Industry, Friends of Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle Parent Teacher Association, Under Armour, Domino Sugar, MAIF, Martin-Lauer Associates, Southside Diner, BambooMoves Yoga, In Like Flynn Tavern, JR’s Bar & Grill, LP Steamers, Silo.5%, World of Beer, Hull Street Blues Café, Barracudas Tavern, and City Limits Sports Bar. Also included were area real estate developers War Horse Development, Mark Sapperstein’s MCS Fort Ave., Turner Development, The Bozzuto Group, and Goodier Property Group. Federal Hill Neighborhood Association also voted recently to support this effort.

The letter notes that Locust Point has been historically underserved by public transportation relative to other areas of the city and that 400 new housing units have been announced and 500 new jobs are being added to the area. The letter highlighted the following bullet points:

  • Residents have come to depend on the reliability of the Circulator to commute to work.
  • Students from Francis Scott Key use it to get home from school safely, and to take fieldtrips to area attractions that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive.
  • Seniors depend on the Circulator to access grocery stores and medical care.
  • Area cultural attractions rely on the Circulator to bring tourists to their sites.
  • Local business owners are reliant on the bus to get tourists and residents alike to theirlocations in order to patronize their restaurants and shops.

“It’s rare that this many stakeholders in the community are on the same page on an issue,” said Greg Sileo, president of the Locust Point Civic Association. Sileo noted that the first he heard of this decision was when contacted for comment by The Baltimore Sun.

“The MTA #1 bus will be the only thing connecting Locust Point to the rest of Downtown and it’s not reliable,” said Sileo.

Though funding for the Banner Route is not in the Mayor’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget, Sileo noted that there are always amendments of the budget.

The Charm City Circulator is holding a public meeting about the route restructuring at Francis Scott Key on July 13th, just seven days before the changes take place. With the meeting so close to the change date, Sileo referred to the meeting as “basically them just checking off the requirement.”

The Locust Point Civic Association is holding a meeting this Tuesday at JR’s Bar & Grill to further organize its opposition to the elimination of the Banner Route.

The recent decisions are also not sitting well with the District 46 Delegation of Senator Bill Ferguson and Delegates Luke Clippinger, Pete Hammen, and Brooke Lierman. They wrote a letter to Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Johnson “to strongly urge them to maintain the Circulator’s Banner Route and the current level of service to the Green and Orange Routes.” The Green and Orange Routes will also experience cutbacks.

From the letter:

As you know, Baltimore City receives $2 million through a local transit grant program run through the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT). During the legislative session this year, we introduced budget language that would have disallowed Baltimore City from accessing $1 million of that $2 million if the City did not maintain the Banner Route. After engaging in negotiations with your Administration about this language and the Banner Route, we understood that to restrict that large sum would risk the entire Circulator program. The Baltimore City Department of Transportation (DOT) represented that it was willing to work in good faith with us and the Councilmember to come up with a plan to ensure that the Banner Route was maintained, or at the very least, coverage of that route was maintained. Based on this assurance, we modified the budget language.

The final state budget includes language that restricts $100,000 of funds designated through MTA to the Circulator program until either Baltimore City and MTA execute a memorandum of understanding in which the city agrees to maintain the operations of the Charm City Circulator route similar to its current route; or MTA and Baltimore City submit a report by August 1, 2015, on the feasibility of enhancing MTA bus service in the event the route is discontinued.

We strongly urge you to take whatever steps necessary to reject the Department of Transportation’s flawed Circulator reduction proposal and commit to a financial sustainability plan that builds from strength for all of our City’s residents.

They noted they were surprised Johnson when presented the closure of the Banner Route as “a near fait accompli” and that they also proposed several alternatives they described as plausible. They were also disappointed by the public meeting just seven days before the closure and have reached out to the DOT and the Maryland Transit Administration to see if any additional state funding may be available.

A Change.org petition asking the Mayor not to cancel the Banner Route has also been created, it currently has 1345 signatures.

The Purple Line extension also had much backing including letters of support from the South Baltimore Neighborhood Association, the Riverside Neighborhood Association (RNA), the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), and Hersh’s Pizza & Drinks, as well as a strong effort from Chesapeake Realty Partners, the owners of 2 East Wells and 1901 South Charles.

“I absolutely believe the Purple Line should go to Wells St. It would help with the tremendous parking problem at Riverside Park,” said John Pare, president of RNA and the executive director of NFB. “Mass transit is a critical element to the area and this is not the time to be cutting funds.”

Putting on his hat as executive director of NFB, Pare said, “mass transit plays a critical role for blind people and the thousands of annual visitors to our building. An extension of Purple Line is very important us. We really hope we can turn this decision around.”

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About the Author:

Founder and Publisher of SouthBmore.com, longtime resident of South Baltimore, and a graduate of Towson University. Diehard Ravens and O's fan, father of three, amateur pizza chef, skateboarder, and "bar food" foodie. Email me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter at @SoBoKevin.
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