Baltimore County spent millions on a free bus, looks to expand despite low ridership
Baltimore County leaders set aside millions for a free ride to get around Towson but not many riders are boarding the bus. The Towson Loop Circulator was launched with much fanfare in October 2021. Officials are now exploring how to get more people to take the free bus while considering expanding the service to other parts of the county.
Earlier this week Tamar McKnight was behind the wheel of a Loop bus. She was driving the purple route that goes north to south on York Road then swings west to the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. She’s been driving for the Loop since the service began.
McKnight said she loves her job but wishes there were more riders because “it makes the day go quicker.”
McKnight had two riders as she made her way through the early morning Towson rush hour.
“It depends on the time of day,” McKnight said. “I’d say the most I’ve gotten on the bus at once is about eight people.”'
That's roughly one-third of the total bus capacity with two dozen seats.
Later that day, Shar Smith was catching a ride to work on the Loop’s busier orange route which runs east and west. Stops include Towson Place, Towson Town Center and The Shops at Kenilworth. There were several riders on board but Smith, who rides regularly, said she’s often the only passenger.
“I just think it’s a pretty solid way to get around if you’re going a short distance,” Smith said.
A nine month tally provided by the county shows about 30,000 riders have taken the bus so far. In 2020, a feasibility study forecasted that the bus would garner about 250,000 riders annually after a year or two and when the coronavirus pandemic restrictions subsided.
Republican Councilman David Marks represents District 5. Towson was in his district until redistricting redrew the political lines earlier this year. He pushed for the free bus for years. In 2010 on the campaign trail Marks argued that the county seat is growing and there’s no more room to expand the roadways.
“Certainly the ridership has been slow but I do think it will improve as time goes on,” Marks said.
For years, the circulator project was blocked by the late Kevin Kamenetz, who was county executive from 2010 until his death in May 2018. In a 2014 interview, Kamenetz said Towson is in the suburbs and people who live, work and shop there like their cars.
“Most of those people aren’t going to utilize a bus to get there,” Kamenetz said. “It’s not the type of pattern, probably, that is amenable to people using a circulator so it’s something that sounds good but who is actually going to ride it?”
County Executive Johnny Olszewski embraced the idea of the free bus during his campaign for the office in 2018.
Councilman Marks said it takes time for any new transit initiative to catch on and it was not a mistake to start the Loop service last fall because at that time there were signs we were moving out of the pandemic.
“This is Baltimore County’s first experiment with transit,” Marks said. “We’ve been a highway-oriented county for our entire history. There’s going to be some growing pains. There’s going to be some lessons learned. But I’m confident that this can be a model for other places.”
To that end, D’Andrea Walker, the acting director of the county’s transportation department said the county is considering expanding free bus service to other parts of the county despite the Loop’s slow start.
“We feel like the economy’s going to come back,” Walker said. “We feel like we’re going to fully come out of COVID. We’re keeping our fingers crossed anyway, right?”
The county is spending around $100,000 for new feasibility studies on free circulators for Owings Mills and Catonsville. It also is working with the Maryland Transit Administration about possibly providing a free circulator at Tradepoint Atlantic, the 3,300 acre global distribution center in Eastern Baltimore County. The goal is that the state transit system would help commuters get to Tradepoint for work. In exchange the circulator, rather than the state transit administration, would ferry people around the property.
The county estimates the Towson Loop’s annual cost will be $3.7 million. This year it plans to pay for about $1 million of that with American Rescue Plan money.
Walker said it has been a challenge to have enough drivers. Bus drivers are in high demand. Local school systems are scrambling for them as well. County Executive Johnny Olszewski bumped up hourly wages for Loop bus drivers an extra $1 per hour to be competitive. According to the county, bus drivers make between $21 to $22 an hour.
Also, they’ve had two waves of drivers being out with COVID-19.
“It’s a constant churn when it comes to our drivers,” Walker said. “It hasn’t adversely impacted service too much.”
Walker said they are looking for ways to increase ridership on the Loop. For instance, they will pitch it to students returning to Towson University and Goucher College. Also they realized there is nothing on the outside of the buses that tells residents it’s a free service. They're fixing that.
“So everybody will know it’s free,” Walker said. “You can jump on, jump off. So we’re learning as we’re going through this process.”
The buses have room for 25 passengers. The seats come with safety belts. There is room in the front portion of the bus for wheelchairs and bicycles.
Mark Greber said he rides regularly and he is seeing ridership pick up “because more and more people know about it.”
Greber is in a power wheelchair He got off the bus on a lift operated by the driver, Crystal Froneberger.
“The driver’s the best,” said Greber. “Like a family.”