Circulator Bus Gets A Later Start Date

Production Problems Blamed For Delay

August 23, 2009|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Baltimore's much-anticipated free circulator bus is running late.

The initial start date for the new bus service was mid-July. In June that slipped to mid-August. Now officials are saying the first route, to run from Hollins Market to Harbor East, will begin by "late summer" - with the end of summer defined as Sept. 21, the last day of the season.

"We have a certain amount of disappointment but it is going to be well worth the wait," said Jamie Kendrick, deputy director of the transportation department.

Kendrick is "hesitant to say" when the second and third routes will be in service. "We don't think the delays will be that much more. We think we'll be up and running this year," he said.

Since December, drivers who park in the city's garages have been paying an extra 3 percent in their parking taxes - the new stream of funds that will be used to pay for the bus service. Since the new tax went into effect, the city has collected roughly $3 million, according to Andrew W. Kleine, the city's budget director.

The 21 buses ordered cost $12 million.

Kendrick said the city is moving ahead with preparations, and is using grant funds to install digital displays at planned stops to inform riders when to expect the next bus. Buses are supposed to arrive every 10 minutes and will run seven days a week.

Kendrick blames the delay on production problems with manufacturer, Design Line International of Charlotte, N.C.

Design Line CEO Brad Glosson said the city requested a seemingly insignificant design change to the front of the bus over the summer that required the purchase of new windshields. That took time, and some of the new windshields arrived with cracks, causing further delay. Also the company has modified the seats and the dashboard.

"We'd all hoped the buses would be on the routes by now," Glosson said. "But in the pursuit of perfection, sometimes there is a bit of delay."

Glosson said the hybrid buses are cleaner and quieter than any other bus available. "The city won't be a disappointed when they arrive, I can tell you that," he said.

The company will deliver the first buses by flatbed truck by mid-September so they can begin the initial route.

Buses for the second route, a U-shaped path that connects Johns Hopkins Hospital with Fells Point, should be ready in October, Glosson said. The final seven buses for the last route, which will connect Pennsylvania Station with Federal Hill, should be ready in November, he said.

The prospect of a delay has not caused too much angst, said Kirby Fowler, the head of the Downtown Partnership. "I don't get an overwhelming sense of urgency," he said. "I don't think there is a drop dead date."

More important than being on time, he said, is for the city to be sure the buses are free of flaws, because the service is intended to target discretionary riders who have cars and do not need to rely on public transportation. "You want to be sure you have a high-quality vehicle that will shock people into using transit again," he said.

Paul Robinson, the head of the Federal Hill neighborhood association, called the idea "marvelous" but said that some neighbors are wary that the new service will transport thugs into his community.

"Those cynics are calling it the 'Rob and Ride' because it is free," Robinson said. "It would make them feel a bit more comfortable if there was some barrier to entry."

Robinson said that he "has his fingers crossed" that the service will be popular and benefit the club and restaurant owners in his community and added that he's been chuckling over a feature on the Metromix Web site that outlines a pub crawl for each of the anticipated circulator bus routes.

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