Daily bus riders are in for the long haul

HAGERSTOWN — HAGERSTOWN -- Jocelyn Grindle was hauling a heavy blue cooler full of Joe Corbi pizzas to deliver to her co-workers, but the extra burden wasn't enough to push her into a car for the grueling commute to downtown Washington.

Instead, she kept her standing date with Maryland's longest commuter bus line -- an 80-minute ride on Route 991 from Hagerstown to the Shady Grove Metro stop in Montgomery County.


"I said, 'No, I'm going to carry this bag,'" said Grindle, who is in her 30s and works as an accountant for a Washington nonprofit organization. "That's an hour extra sleep I'd rather have."

Grindle is one of a growing number of Marylanders -- most of whom work in Washington or its suburbs -- who regularly ride the Maryland Transit Administration's long-distance commuter buses rather than drive to their jobs.


According to the MTA, the number of commuter bus riders grew 18 percent over the past four years. Under the Ehrlich administration, the MTA added 27 round trips on such routes, including three on the well-used Hagerstown line. A proposal to provide five more rides, including an additional one on Route 991, will go before the state Board of Public Works on Jan. 3.

The growth in long-distance commuting is a reflection of the increasing willingness of Marylanders to put up with brutal schedules to own homes they can afford in the far-flung reaches of the state.

"We get a lot more house for our money," said Grindle. "What I make in D.C. goes a long way in Hagerstown."

The choice to make that trip by bus is largely a reaction to the stress and cost of driving to Washington and its inner suburbs through some of the nation's most congested traffic corridors. The number of riders on commuter routes to Baltimore, which include such starting points as Laurel, Churchville and Havre de Grace, has been stagnant.

"The demand is greater on the routes to D.C.," said Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. "The difference is the level of congestion, the cost of parking and the growth of jobs in downtown D.C. versus Baltimore."

That congestion became apparent on a recent Thursday morning as soon as the 5:25 a.m. bus pulled out of the park-and-ride lot under the glowing Sleep Inn sign on Route 65 and onto Interstate 70. Even at that hour, traffic on I-70 was heavy as the bus made its way over South Mountain.

"It seems people are getting on [I-70] a lot earlier now," said Elaine Lunsford of Hagerstown.

Lunsford, who describes herself as "60-ish," has only recently begun taking the 991 because her job was transferred to downtown Washington. She calls the daily bus commute "a new adventure."


She said she has noticed an influx of residents to Washington County over the past five years.

"All the jobs are down the road," said Lunsford, who works for a Department of Energy contractor. "There's really no employment in Hagerstown."

Like most of the riders, Lunsford was heading for the Shady Grove Metro station, where she would continue her commute by subway. She said that what she saves in gasoline makes up for the $5 one-way fare on the bus.

Brian Ellis, 29, of Hagerstown lives five minutes from the stop and travels to Shady Grove to catch a second bus to his job at First Advantage in Rockville. He said he and his wife chose to live in Hagerstown because "there's no way we could afford a home in Montgomery County."

Ellis said his commute is far from the longest on the 991. "I know people who come from Hancock to catch this bus," he said, referring to a town 30 miles west of Hagerstown. Other riders said they were coming from Martinsburg, W.Va., 25 miles away.

The bus was about half-full as it departed for its first stop in Frederick. Ellis said it used to be more crowded before the addition of buses earlier this year.


Heather Stevenson, 28, said she spends more than four hours a day commuting from her parents' home in Hagerstown to her job in the AIDS division at the National Institutes of Health and back.

"Because I'm studying, I don't have a life anyway," said Stevenson, a master's program student at the University of Maryland.

Stevenson was one of the minority of riders planning to stay on the bus after Shady Grove for the leg of the trip serving the Rock Spring Business Park in Rockville -- the location of major employers such as the Marriott Corp. and the NIH.

That final destination pushed Route 991 into first place for the longest MTA route at 67 miles -- narrowly edging the 64.7-mile Route 909 from California in St. Mary's County to Washington.

Route 991 is also among the fastest-growing, with a 59 percent increase over four years. Its "fare box recovery," the percentage of its costs recovered from passengers, stands at 46 percent -- compared with 37 percent for Baltimore-area MTA buses and 36 percent for all commuter buses.

The commuter buses are in many ways better equipped than their metropolitan counterparts. Most have toilets, and the seats are more comfortable than those in a typical MTA bus. In most cases, the commuter buses are operated by private contractors such as Eyre Bus Service Inc., which provides service on the Hagerstown run.


Route 991 was near capacity after stops at the Monocacy MARC station in Frederick and the park-and-ride in Urbana. Just after 6:10 a.m., the bus pulled onto Interstate 270 and predictably ran into bumper-to-bumper traffic in what might be Maryland's most congested traffic corridor.

Ram Randad, 46, said it would be 30 minutes faster to drive from his Frederick home to his job with the Food and Drug Administration in Rockville. But he prefers to board the bus at the Monocacy station.

"When I drive, I'm all stressed out, all the road rage. When I'm on the bus, I'm at peace," he said.

Andrew Pollara, 36, of Thurmont said he spends more time reading, sleeping and working on his BlackBerry since giving up driving all the way to his job at the NIH. He said he prefers catching the bus at Monocacy despite the two-hour trip door to door.

"My stress level has gone down considerably. My wife says she has noticed a drastic improvement in my mood when I get home," he said.

The morning bus pulled into the Shady Grove station at 6:45 a.m., and Grindle hauled her cooler full of pizzas to catch a subway for the half-hour trip to Farragut North.


As she went through her morning ritual of applying makeup on the Metro, Grindle talked about the toll of a commute that takes, all together, about 4 3/4 hours four days a week. She said she depends on her husband -- who works 10 minutes from their home -- to get their 4-year-old daughter ready for school. Grindle said she often falls asleep before the girl goes to bed.

But Grindle said there are consolations -- such as the people she meets aboard the bus.

"We all make friends," she said. "We have things in common -- our schedules and our family life. It's nice to know you're not the only one with this kind of schedule."