Debbie Reid returned to her car in a county commuter parking lot after a long day's work recently and made discouraging discovery: a $35 parking citation under the wiper blade.
The Columbia woman has taken a commuter bus to her job in Washington for the past 10 years. But the commuter parking lots have gotten so crowded in the mornings that she sometimes parks illegally along a curb in the lot at Broken Land Parkway and Route 32.
"It's terrible," Reid, 59, said Wednesday evening, in the same lot where she was ticketed. "Some days, it's just unusually crowded."
As gas prices continue to climb, more Howard County residents are finding alternative ways to get to work. Regular riders say that in the past six months to a year, the commuter buses to Montgomery County and Washington have been noticeably more crowded in the mornings.
That also means that more people are parking in commuter lots. In response, county officials are drafting a plan to increase the number of parking spaces at the lots and take steps to encourage more environmentally friendly means of transportation.
The move is in response to a petition with about 140 names that was submitted by a county resident seeking that something be done about the overcrowded lots.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said that he has asked that the plan be put together in the next two weeks to increase the size of the lot at Snowden River Parkway and Route 175 "dramatically." The plan would add 50 spaces, said county spokesman Kevin Enright. The lot has 210 spaces now.
Though the lots are state-owned, the county is willing to pay for the changes so that they can be completed in the next few weeks, Ulman said.
"The issue from my perspective is that gas prices are over $4," he said. "This is the time that we should be encouraging mass-transit ridership and finding more opportunities to increase that ridership in any way we can."
The State Highway Administration has given the county permission to install bike racks at the Snowden River lot, Ulman said, and the county's Department of Public Works has agreed to hasten a project approved in the capital budget to close a gap in the sidewalk leading up to the lot so that people can walk to it.
Ulman said he has also requested a survey of all commuter lots in the county.
"I completely sympathize with people that are taking the commuter buses," Ulman said. "The last thing I want is someone to get a ticket when they're trying to take the bus, but the rules are the rules.
"The silver lining is that [gas prices] are forcing people to think more about their behaviors and driving patterns."
Ulman added that although he is aware that much of the overcrowding occurs at the two Broken Land Parkway lots, which each have more than 300 parking spaces, there are fewer short-term options there because of a lack of surrounding space to add parking. He said, however, that the county will work with the state to consider altering bus routes to accommodate the commuter traffic at Broken Land.
"Creating additional capacity at Snowden and 175 can also help alleviate the situation at Broken Land," Ulman said.
County Councilman Greg Fox said he received a parking ticket at one of the Broken Land Parkway lots Tuesday after he parked illegally because all the spots were taken by the time he got there at 7:45 a.m. He was meeting colleagues to carpool.
"If we're out there encouraging people to carpool ... and then we're out ticketing them, it's a little bit ironic," Fox said. "It shows me how many people are commuting outside of the county to go to work and how we need to focus on getting jobs inside the county."
Ulman said that although he encourages people to carpool, the commuter lots are not meant for that purpose.
"When you're taking the commuter bus, you really don't have too many options," he said. "You can't park down the road or in a shopping center."
In the meantime, despite the lack of space, many commuters are not discouraged from parking.
On Wednesday afternoon, for example, 25 cars were parked illegally in one of the Broken Land lots, while the other was filled.
"If you've got to go to work, you've got to work," Reid said.