BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Baltimore’s free bus system, the Charm City Circulator, is millions of dollars in debt.

Tracey Leong reports how it happened and what the city plans to do.

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The Charm City Circulator has accumulated an $11.6 million deficit. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is ordering a review to fix the budget challenge.

Since launching in 2010, the Charm City Circulator’s ridership has increased dramatically.

“Cause it’s free,” Sedaya Moore, Circulator rider said.

“Get to different parts of the city faster,” Gerald Calendine, another rider said.

The Circulator’s ridership isn’t the only thing that has increased dramatically. Mayor Rawlings-Blake said the operating deficit has increased as well.

“The revenues have not kept pace with the service costs,” Rawlings-Blake said.

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The debt is expected to grow to a total of $46.8 million by 2024 if nothing is changed. Financial troubles stem from unexpected costs including purchasing new buses and insufficient revenue. The city is relying on the general fund to keep the system operating.

The mayor has ordered a review of the system to determine the most viable options for getting out of debt. These options range from changing the hours of operation, adjusting routes, raising the parking tax or adding a fee. Some city residents, like William Stokes, said they will still ride the Circulator even if there’s a fee.

“If they charge a dollar here they probably still ride because it’s cheaper than the MTA,” Stokes said.

Unlike Stokes, the mayor isn’t convinced people will still use the Circulator if fees are added. She is concerned that fees will hurt the success of the program.

“Have to work through those challenges in order to maintain the services that make people want to come to Baltimore and stay in Baltimore,” Rawlings-Blake said.

Recommendations should be available for the mayor to review by early next year.

The Charm City Circulator has four million riders a year and 85 percent of them live in Baltimore City. The buses run seven days a week.

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