No Free Rides

Our View: Commuter Water Taxis Are A Good Idea, But The City Should Charge A Fare

July 17, 2009

Baltimore City is getting a touch of Venice with a fleet of water taxis to whisk commuters downtown from Fells Point, Canton and Locust Point via the Inner Harbor. Even if the snappy blue-and-white vessels aren't quite on a par with Venice's famed Vaporettos, they certainly make city commuting more scenic, and on top of that, they're free.

But should they be? The system, which is being expanded with a $1.6 million federal stimulus grant, costs about $150,000 a year to operate. But so far, it's only attracted about 90 passengers a day, which seems a lot for a relative handful of commuters, most of whom probably could afford at least a token fare.

Jamie Kendrick, deputy director of the Baltimore Department of Transportation, says judging whether the city is getting its money's worth depends on how you count the costs. Most of the expense of operating the system is coming out of the 20 percent parking tax increase approved by the City Council last year. And Mr. Kendrick expects ridership to increase to at least 300 people a day over the next few months.

More important, he says, the water taxis are intended to ease traffic congestion and reduce air pollution downtown by encouraging people to leave their cars at home. The water taxis, he says, are part of the planned downtown circulator, a free transit system that includes buses carrying commuters back and forth through the central business district.

Mr. Kendrick thinks if the service is free, people will use it more and the way they think about mass transit will begin to change. Eventually, they'll be more willing to pay for it, he says.

The city's goals for getting people out of their cars downtown are certainly laudable, and a water taxi as part of that effort makes sense, given that the trip from Fells Point to Locust Point is vastly shorter by water than by roads. But the factors that will get people to use the system are reliability, convenience and quality. If it delivered on those counts, people wouldn't need much encouragement to use it - and pay for it - because it would be less stressful than driving and cheaper than parking.

The city's ability to provide good service and to maintain it will forever be hamstrung if the system does not produce any revenue; Baltimore already once established a free downtown circulator, only to abandon it when funding dried up. Moreover, it's hard to swallow the idea of the city paying for office workers to commute from one waterfront community to another when many of the city's poor have no other way to get around than to pay for the bus.

Baltimore should absolutely try to reduce the number of commuters driving downtown. But not for free.

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