Baltimore officials want to revive a downtown shuttle bus service to ease congestion and free up parking spaces in city garages, despite the financial failure of a similar transit system three years ago.
The proposal, which might initially include three downtown circulator bus routes - with reduced fares or no fare at all - would be paid for in part by increasing a city tax levied on daily and monthly parking spaces.
"Congestion is a serious issue in downtown," said 1st Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank. "People are spending a lot of time in their cars. That creates productivity issues and also environmental issues."
Baltimore transportation officials - who briefed the City Council on a preliminary proposal yesterday - suggested east-west and north-south routes, and one that would start downtown near the Shot Tower and stop along Broadway and at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Officials stressed that routes have not been set and said they are studying how much the proposal would cost workers and tourists who park in garages and lots.
The city projects that it would cost $6 million to $8 million to start the service and about $4.9 million to keep it operating every year.
Shuttle services have worked in other cities, and some neighborhood shuttles have been successful in Baltimore. Washington has three low-fare circulator routes. But similar efforts in downtown Baltimore have failed to capture the attention of tourists in the past.
In 2002, the city used a $5.9 million state grant to create the Downtown Area Shuttle, or DASH, which carried employees and "leisure riders" from fringe parking lots into the city.
Money for the program dried up, and the system was discontinued in 2005.
A route geared to tourists captured few riders, but another route that carried workers from a parking lot into the city was more successful, according to reports at the time.
Jamie Kendrick, deputy city transportation director, said the new system would run on a more attractive schedule than those in the past. He said the buses would arrive every 10 minutes, and that the routes would connect with the water taxi and other public transportation stations.
Kendrick said he hoped the program could be running next spring.
"We've had good success with downtown circulators in the past," Kendrick said. "We feel like, especially in the southeast area -South Baltimore and downtown - we could have real success again."
Drivers who park in Baltimore - including those who park in private garages and lots - pay a $15 flat monthly tax if they have a monthly contract or 12 percent of the ticket fee to park if they do not.
The city collects about $16 million a year from that tax.
Kendrick said the city has not determined how much that parking tax might increase.
Frank said the city would hire a private contractor to operate the bus service. That contractor has not been selected.
"We need a service downtown that moves people around," said J. Kirby Fowler Jr., president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, which has long pushed for the shuttle service. "Other cities have this, and it works."