For downtown workers, the corned beef sandwiches at Attman's and Lenny's just got a little more accessible at lunch hour. Harbor East is a little closer to Camden Yards. And the doctors and nurses at University of Maryland Medical Center can duck out for a snack at the Hollins Market or Little Italy without taking a car.
The Charm City Circulator, the long-awaited free downtown shuttle bus, made its debut Monday morning with the launch of its east-west Orange Route.
Proponents have high hopes that the new bus service - using hybrid diesel-electric vehicles to cut down on harmful emissions - will win widespread acceptance among tourists and residents, and improve mobility downtown.
Mayor Sheila Dixon, who will resign her post next month, hailed the Circulator as a way to reduce single-operator vehicle traffic downtown. "It's going to be cleaner and greener, and it's really going to help us move downtown," she said at a news conference at the Convention Center.
Dixon has been one of the chief backers of the free bus service during its bumpy journey from concept to reality. The Circulator has been one of the signature programs on her transportation agenda - and the buses are emblazoned with her name on the side.
Dixon promoted the virtues of the new service, which is expected to run buses at 10-minute intervals seven days a week.
"You can go down to Harbor East by just jumping on the Circulator," she said. "This is exciting. We finally have the first line up."
The city-operated Circulator is expected to add two routes this spring: the Purple Route will connect Penn Station with Federal Hill, while the Green Route will tie Johns Hopkins Hospital with Fells Point and City Hall.
Unlike previous, short-lived versions of free downtown bus service, the Circulator - with a first-year budget of $5.2 million - has a dedicated source of financing in the city's parking tax.
Laurie Schwartz, managing consultant of the Waterfront Partnership, said the Circulator service will let people get around downtown without relying on their cars.
"It's going to mean less congestion. People are going to come down and park once and use the Circulator to get around during the day," she said.
City officials hope that a more reliable financing source will make the Circulator more successful than previous attempts to establish a free downtown shuttle. In 2002, the city launched a similar service called DASH - for Downtown Area Shuttle - with a $5.9 million state grant. But when the state money ran out in 2005, the program was discontinued.
Users of the new service will ride in city-owned buses operated and maintained by Veolia Transportation under a contract with the Baltimore Department of Transportation.
The 35-foot-long buses are smaller than the typical Maryland Transit Administration vehicle and will be able to operate on some streets the MTA can't serve. Each bus has 24 seats and capacity for 20 standing passengers.
Each route will have its own fixed bus stops with its own signage. The Orange Route has 27 stops from Hollins Market in the west to Corned Beef Row in the east. For much of its route, the shuttle will operate in newly established dedicated bus and bicycle lanes on Pratt and Lombard streets. A full circuit is expected to take 54 minutes, leaving six minutes for drivers to take a break. Six buses are expected to be on the route at any given time during operating hours.
During the winter months, the weekday service will operate from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., except for Fridays, when it will continue until midnight. On Saturdays it will operate 9 a.m. until midnight; on Sunday, the buses will run 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. During the summer, the weekday service will be extended to 9 p.m.
For some trips, riders will now have a free alternative to the $1.60 MTA bus fare. For instance, once the Purple Route begins service, commuters who come to Penn Station aboard MARC trains will be able to take a free shuttle downtown rather than pay to ride MTA Routes 3, 61 or 64.
Maryland transit administrator Ralign Wells said he sees the new service as complementary rather than competitive.
"We actually see it as a partnership," he said at the news conference. The MTA will work with the city to coordinate schedules and to provide information about the Circulator on its Web site, he added.
Jamie Kendrick, the city's deputy transportation director, said the MTA does a great job of bringing people into downtown but the new service will do more to help them get around the central business district. "There is some overlap, but this fills in some gaps in their service."
Kendrick said Downtown Partnership of Baltimore President Kirby Fowler approached City Hall about reviving downtown service shortly after Dixon became mayor in early 2007.