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State transportation officials laid out a plan Jan. 18 before the Southern Maryland delegation that they hope will address ongoing concerns with overcrowding and inconsistent arrival and departure times of the region’s commuter buses.

The Maryland Transit Administration plans to split the three bus routes serving the Waldorf and La Plata areas into five new, shorter routes when their contract comes up for renewal in November, and hopes to do the same with three routes that travel along Route 5 and into St. Mary’s County when that contract ends in November 2014.

Glenn Saffran, MTA’s deputy director for MARC and commuter bus service, said the biggest problem with the bus service currently is the travel time, congestion and reliability of afternoon routes coming out of Washington, D.C., particularly for those buses leaving Northwest Washington at the peak of rush hour. The overcrowding issues are statewide, he added.

“On a daily basis people are being passed up for the trip they want to get on,” Saffran said. “We can’t meet the demand on all our trips.”

Saffran told the delegation that he’s “hopeful” the new routes will reduce bus congestion and commuting times.

Of the MTA’s 24 commuter bus routes, one-third service Southern Maryland, but those eight routes represent nearly half of MTA’s daily bus “trips,” according to department data. In addition, of the nearly 4.2 million passengers who rode an MTA commuter bus last year, 2.2 million came on Southern Maryland routes.

Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles) noted that Routes 901 and 905 — which travel from La Plata and California, respectively — alone carried about 645,000 and 491,000 passengers in 2012.

Meanwhile, Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) questioned the disparity between the total cost and subsequent subsidy per passenger of each route.

While five routes serving Columbia and Baltimore charge passengers a $3.15 fare, the remaining routes serving Southern Maryland, Kent Island, Hagestown and various locations in Prince George’s, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties charge $3.83 per rider.

Yet, the cost of each route ranges between $3.95 and $11.61 per passenger, meaning the per-rider subsidies range from 80 cents to more than $9, a “striking disparity” that O’Donnell described as a “red flag for audit.”

“Something’s jumping out at me as not being right on this page,” he added.

Saffran countered that the difference in cost and subsidies has to do with each route’s ridership — the more passengers, the less it costs the MTA for each one to ride that route.

“It is expensive when you run a 55-seat motorcoach with only 10 people on it,” Saffran said.

Statewide, the average commuter fare is $3.77 versus an average cost of $9.34 per passenger. O’Donnell did commend the MTA for recovering 40 percent of its costs through fares, performance which he said far outstripped other transit systems in the state.

MTA commuter bus Superintendent Timothy B. Norris said many of the routes had only received one bid in the past, but that he hoped a recent uptick in competitive bidding would help drive down costs.

Ken Gordon of Waldorf, who briefed the Charles County delegation on commuters’ concerns at an August meeting in La Plata, said that while conditions had since improved, problems persisted, particularly with overcrowding.

Early morning buses out of a stop in Accokeek are “pretty full” Tuesday through Thursday, Gordon said, adding that every once in a while, he’s among those left behind waiting for the next bus, which might or might not arrive on time.

Gordon also said that some riders have complained of foul odors on the buses, and asked if they had recently been inspected for mold.

“It’s amazing, when you’re out there waiting for a bus every day, the amount of information you pick up” from other commuters, he said.

In addition, some of the buses make such loud noise, “you’re not sure if it’s going to make it. … It sounds like the transmission is going to fall out,” Gordon said.

Nelson Cross, terminal manager for Dillon’s Bus Service, which holds contracts for four of the region’s eight bus routes, said that the company has added 13 new buses since August and hired 12 new drivers since a September open house at Regency Furniture Stadium, which more than 60 frustrated commuters attended.

“I can only speak for my route … we have seen some improvement,” Gordon said. He suggested that MTA develop a way to notify commuters via email or text message whenever a bus was running late.

Del. Mark Fisher (R-Calvert) asked whether MTA had ever considered whether there would be any interest in providing commuters with a private, upscale bus service that might reduce congestion on the public coaches.

“That’s kind of a unique question,” Saffran said.

“Maybe it’s time to think outside the box,” Fisher countered.

Saffran contended that there was nothing currently precluding a bus company from providing such a service except cost-effectiveness, but Fisher said that bus companies might become interested if they could share lots with the MTA.

Fisher and O’Donnell also took issue that the presentation did not include any specific details about planned changes to Calvert County’s commuter bus routes. O’Donnell specifically noted that 400 county residents who work for the U.S. Census Bureau have been clamoring for years for a dedicated route to its Suitland headquarters.

Saffran said MTA “absolutely” has plans for Calvert, including adding a route to the Suitland Federal Center, but that the county’s two current routes are in the middle of a five-year contract.

Nonetheless, O’Donnell said he was “not impressed” with Calvert’s exclusion.

Saffran tried to explain that he wasn’t expecting anyone from Calvert County to be at the delegation’s meeting, at which point O’Donnell decided it was time to call Saffran into the principal’s office.

“Can I schedule an appointment with you?” a plainly frustrated O’Donnell asked, while Fisher chuckled. “Maybe I can show you where Calvert County is on a map.”

Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary’s, Charles) said he was still getting complaints from constituents about commuters being left behind in the District.

Saffran said that while people frequently have to wait multiple trips before there is room for them on the next 55-seat bus, he was unaware of anyone ever actually being stranded in D.C. with no more buses on their way. Standing passengers in addition to seated riders are allowed on each route’s last bus out of town, he added.

Gordon said that the options for someone stranded in the District were to either call Commuter Connections, which offers a “Guaranteed Ride Home” program, or have someone pick them up at a Metro station.

Wood said that he’s never gotten more complaints from commuters than he has in the past three years, and wondered what had changed in that time.

Saffran answered that more riders in addition to the ability technology gives them to air their complaints could be the biggest factors.

Norris said the bankruptcy of Dillon’s parent company a year ago led to many of its buses being neglected. Complaints have been down since Dillon’s was purchased by Coach USA in July, he added.

jnewman@somdnews.com