By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun
July 8, 2012
Many federal workers in and around Washington make their home in the Baltimore area, so when two of them get together at a party, they immediately begin swapping commuting strategies.
"Invariably, the first question that I get when I say I commute to D.C. is 'Oh, do you take the train?'" said Elaine Papp, a Federal Hill resident who works for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in southeast Washington. "When I say, 'No,' then they say, 'How do you get there?'"
How to get "there" is a question thousands of Marylanders must figure out. About 101,370 federal employees in Maryland commute to Washington, according to 2010 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. And around 17,465 of them live in Baltimore and the surrounding counties.
The usual mode of travel is either car or train — or a combination of the two. And timing is everything. Workers calculate when to leave the house in the morning to encounter the least amount of traffic or to get to the train with just the right amount of time to spare. They make a similar analysis for the journey home.
A round trip can easily eat up more than two hours of the day — if everything goes well. A roadside accident or a breakdown on the tracks can throw a schedule off by hours.
"It's like a house of cards. One thing goes wrong, and the whole thing falls apart," Papp said.
She drives a half hour to Greenbelt and then rides the Metro for 40 minutes. Driving the entire way would be quicker, but Papp won't hear of it.
"Because it's too hectic," she says. "I sit on the train. I read the paper. I do the crossword puzzle. Sometimes I write Christmas cards. It's a nice way to kind of chill out before I actually get to work."
Public transportation isn't stress-free, though. Commuters haven't forgotten the "hell train" two years ago when a Baltimore-bound MARC train broke down in sweltering weather, leaving hundreds of people sweating it out for hours.
Wesley Branch, a federal forensic toxicologist for the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia, was on that train. He said it took him six hours to get home.
"It was in the middle of the going-home traffic," he said. "Everything was shut down and there was no air conditioning. Nobody could move."
Branch, who lives in South Baltimore, has been commuting to Washington for more than nine years. In that time, he said, he and his fellow passengers have seen plenty of train troubles.
"It's those problems that bind us," he said.
Still, the train remains the choice of many.
"It's horrible driving all the way" and a dusting of snow on the roads can add hours to a trip, said Vigdis Jacobsen, a grants management specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in Rosslyn, Va.
The Baltimore resident drives to Halethorpe to catch the MARC train before the cars get crowded.
"You learn the drill. Some people talk too much, so you stay away from them," Jacobsen said.
For some, the train isn't a convenient option.
Adam Minakowski, for example, drives from Timonium to his job at the National Archives in College Park, just outside Washington. He usually leaves at 6 a.m. or so to avoid traffic on his route from the Jones Falls Expressway to the Capital Beltway.
The archives technician arrives at work more than an hour early and uses that time to check his personal email or to exercise at the University of Maryland's facilities. He occasionally carpools, which eliminates some of the driving hassles but adds another 10 minutes to his trip.
"It wears on you," the 34-year-old said. "When we get to the weekend, I avoid driving at all cost. My wife is driving everywhere."
Most workers try to shorten their commute, but Tadd Buffington actually sought out a longer one. The senior engineer used to live on Capitol Hill, a half-mile from his job at NASA. But he got bored with the city and few years ago moved to Baltimore. Now his commute can take as long as two hours — one way.
"I did it for the adventure. I like the experience," he says. "You never know what will happen next."
Buffington rides his Harley-Davidson Road King from Pigtown to the MARC train station at BWI airport. He sits in the quiet car where, he said, a bite into a crisp apple can draw glares. Buffington uses this time to study for a master's degree in aeronautical science.
After emerging from Union Station, "it's elbow to elbow" on the Metro, he said. Some days he works at NASA's Crystal City office, which means transferring from one Metro train to another and then walking a mile.
Despite long travel times, none of the workers interviewed would think of cutting their commute by moving to D.C.
"I have that natural Baltimore aversion for D.C.," said Minakowski, who grew up in the Baltimore area.
Some even point to the enjoyable aspects of commuting. They see the same people each day, conversations start and friendships bloom.
And, at least on the train, commuters can buy alcohol at Union Station to drink on the way home.
"Nine times out of 10 someone has a glass and is willing to share with you," said Branch, an occasional imbiber.
Experienced commuters advise newbies to try different routes before settling on a routine. And if they do take the train, Branch said, they should sit back and try to enjoy the ride.
"Don't get on and just complain," he said. "You can always meet a friend and the commute is as simple as 'I got to go to work and talk to my friend on the train.' That's all it needs to be."
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