The city's Board of Estimates approved yesterday a deal that will help alleviate the financial troubles of a fledgling fleet of shuttles that serve more than 900 downtown workers.
The five-member board, which sets the city's fiscal policy, unanimously agreed to practically eliminate the $48,000 fee it charges the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. for leasing a parking lot near M&T Bank Stadium as the hub of its Downtown Area Shuttle system.
The agreement allows the Downtown Partnership to pay $1 to use the city-owned lot on Ostend Street that doubles as overflow parking for Ravens football games.
"This would get us to break even," Michele L. Whelley, president of the Downtown Partnership, told the board yesterday.
The service, a three-year pilot program, started in March 2002 with a $5.9 million grant from the state Department of Transportation. It was intended to provide a cheaper alternative to the expensive parking lots in downtown.
The system has signed up nearly 60 organizations and companies that have purchased nearly 900 $50 monthly passes that they dole out to their employees. Riders park at the lot, or in another one across the street, and ride the shuttles to one of the 14 stops along the two routes into downtown. Anyone can board the bus at a cost of 50 cents, and people holding MTA passes can ride it for free.
The system, which operates with a $2 million annual budget, generates $140,000 in annual parking taxes for the city.
"We can't offer cheaper alternatives" to the expensive monthly parking passes downtown, said Jeff Sparrow, executive director of the Baltimore City Parking Authority. "We want to continue to make DASH successful."
Whelley said the system's success has created unanticipated costs.
"We had operating costs that are higher than we had originally projected," Whelley said. "We've chosen to address these costs to keep this a customer-friendly and responsive system."
She said the system has had to provide extra security because cars at the two lots have been vandalized. A decision to divide the system into two separate downtown routes required more drivers.
She also said the bus system started with eight buses that were smaller than what the partnership had projected. That forced the partnership to buy two supplemental vans.
"We thought we would be able to serve 1,100 folks whom were parking and riding," Whelley said. "We will cap out at somewhere between 900 and 950."
If the system generates a profit under the new arrangement, the first $48,000 will be given to the city before the state is paid.