With Monday's opening of the Purple Line from Federal Hill to Penn Station, two out of three of the Charm City Circulator bus line's routes are now in operation. Only the Green Line, a U-shaped route connecting City Hall, Harbor East, Fells Point and Johns Hopkins Hospital, is still to be launched, most likely in September.
The timing is awkward, to say the least. That Baltimore is unveiling a new bus service at a cost of nearly $6 million a year while the city deals with one of its worst budget crises in recent memory (including employee layoffs and a major tax increase) may strike some as cavalier. But in fact, it reflects government decision-making at its most prudent.
It doesn't take more than a brief stroll down Charles Street's empty storefronts to recognize that the city's retail and business districts require this investment. Parking is at a premium through much of downtown, and the circulator has the capacity to free tourists and residents alike from their cars (not to mention the rising cost of parking).
Between the Inner Harbor-centered Orange and north-south Purple lines, visitors can hop on for lunch at Hollins or Cross Street markets or maybe to buy a gift at Harborplace or Mount Vernon and be back at the office in minutes. The attractive vehicles are comfortable and low-polluting, and riders need not wait longer than 10 minutes, on average, for the next one. They can even be tracked on the Internet for up-to-the-second status.
Call them "boutique buses," but they are already attracting thousands of riders who wouldn't set foot on a Maryland Transit Administration bus. Ridership is above projections at 1,700 daily, and when the system is fully operational it should peak at around 7,500 on summer weekends.
We would quibble with some of the city's choices. That the circulator is fare-less may help generate traffic, but it makes the service less sustainable in the long run — a token 50-cent fare would make the buses seem less an indulgence. The buses' high-tech design could lead to higher maintenance costs, and the choice to subsidize the water taxi to offer free trips across the harbor to Tide Point may prove an excess, given the relatively low demand.
But on the whole, the circulator is a tremendous asset and a great deal for city residents as it is funded mostly by the 2008 increase in the parking tax. In other words, downtown businesses and commuters are financing a project that benefits them most directly.
Most directly — but not exclusively. The more attractive Baltimore makes itself to visitors, the more people will visit. Downtown's success is good news for the city's financial health and for the state's economic core. This is the lesson of the downtown renaissance, and it is as true today as it was when a fellow named William Donald Schaefer hung out at City Hall.
No doubt the bus line wouldn't be approved by the City Council today. The city's rough financial straits would make it politically impossible. But that doesn't make it a regrettable choice — more like a smart investment made two years ago that has begun yielding dividends and should continue to do so for many years to come.