Tom Ryan of Baltimore, left, and other passengers ride the Charm… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
Theresa Kelly figures she's saving $550 in parking by taking the Charm City Circulator from her home in Harbor East to the University of Maryland nursing school. Courtney Kellum uses the "wonderful" service every day, hopping on the free bus in Mount Vernon to get to her job at the Kona Grill on Pratt Street. Navy veteran Tom Ryan rides it between the homeless shelter where he stays and the Veterans Administration on Greene Street.
The three Baltimore residents are among the thousands who have come to depend on the Circulator, which made its debut on the streets of Baltimore a year ago Tuesday.
Its kickoff last Jan. 11 was a somewhat awkward event. The headliner at the opening was Sheila Dixon, making one of her last public appearances as mayor after pleading guilty to theft charges.
Dixon's long gone from City Hall, but the Circulator — one of the signature "cleaner, greener" initiatives of her administration — appears to be going strong and attracting more passengers than expected. Last week, according to the Baltimore Department of Transportation, the Circulator passed the 1.2 million mark in ridership.
"Step on any bus and the diversity is amazing — race, class, gender," said Jamie Kendrick, the city's deputy director of transportation. "It proves that transit can be a mode of choice for people."
The Circulator began service a year ago with a single line: the east-west Orange Route between Harbor East and Hollins Market. The city added a second line, the north-south Purple Route between Penn Station and South Baltimore, in June. The bus service is operated by Veolia Transportation under a contract with the city.
The city's venture into transit service — an arena in which it had previously failed — remains a subject of disagreement in Baltimore. Some citizens question whether the cash-strapped city has any business offering free rides to anyone who wants to jump on a bus.
"Baltimore is cutting services left and right, so how does the city have the money to operate a free bus service for mostly affluent neighborhoods?" said Ricarra Jones of Baltimore.
But among those who regularly ride the Circulator, the response has been highly positive — even though many see room for improvement. Joe Kennedy of Federal Hill said he likes being able to visit Mount Vernon or Harbor East without having to pay for parking.
"It's a great service and one that I'd even pay for — I hope they keep it up and expand it," he said.
In fact, it's parking that is paying for the Circulator. In 2008, Dixon persuaded the City Council to increase the tax on parking in the city to provide a dedicated stream of funding for the transit service.
The money was used to acquire a fleet of 13 low-emission diesel-hybrid buses from Design Line — a decision the city would come to regret. The vehicles displayed a tendency to break down in hot weather – a failing that seriously disrupted service last summer.
Kendrick said the city has ended its agreement with Design Line and has placed an order for 13 new non-turbine Orion buses that may not be as "green" but are considered more reliable. The Design Line buses will be phased out, he said.
When the Circulator was launched, city officials touted it as a service that would benefit tourists as well as local residents and downtown workers. In that, it appears to be succeeding.
Volker Stewart, owner of the Brewers Art restaurant and brewpub on Charles Street in Mount Vernon, said some of his customers enjoy riding the Purple Route from Federal Hill without having to worry about parking or the consequences of having just one more beer.
"People do seem to use it and use it to go out and spend some money," he said. "I think it's been a real boon to us."
Courtney Wilson, executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum, said quite a few tourists arrived via the Orange Route during the summer months. But Wilson has also noticed a downside of the free service — one that was apparent Monday on the route, which serves homeless shelters and methadone clinics as well as glittering office towers,
"The demographic riding the bus is not conducive to tourist travel," he said. "You had a variety of people who have been riding the bus just to stay in the air conditioning."
For now, the city has no plans to add a charge. Instead, it's preparing to expand the free service. A third line, to be known as the Green Route, is expected to be added this autumn, making a loop connecting Johns Hopkins Hospital with Fells Point, Harbor East and the City Hall area. A fourth is expected to begin serving Locust Point and Fort McHenry in time for the city's War of 1812 bicentennial celebration.
Kelly, the UM nursing doctorate student, said she and her colleagues are looking forward to the service's expansion. The current service, she said, "saves me immensely.
"You can't beat the price, so I have no complaints," she said.