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Commuter Puzzle: What Should I Tell Her?

Travelers provided some good advice during Monday's online discussion about issues such as the best route to Merriweather Post Pavilion. So when I got this inquiry from a reader, I thought I'd once again consult the group with local knowledge.

She wrote: "If you had to live in Howard County and commute to downtown DC (17th and Pennsylvania), where would you live within the county and how would you get downtown (driving, MARC, etc)? Is Laurel the best commuting-wise? I know 95 and 295 can both be bad during rush hour."

So we're not talking best homes, best schools, best environment. This is strictly a commuting question. And no fair telling her she should live closer to work. She says she has to live in Howard County.

So I'm thinking she should live as far south as possible for a road or rail commute from Howard into downtown Washington. But each transportation option has its drawbacks.

On MARC, if she drives to Dorsey, Jessup, Savage or Laurel on the Camden Line, isn't she going to find the parking areas and the trains crowded? When she gets to Union Station, she'll still have to get to the area west of the White House where her job is. She can take Metrorail to Farragut West, but that means changing trains at Metro Center, for a total of three transfers on a one-way commute. (Okay, she could take the Red Line to Farragut North and walk a little farther.)

How about living in Columbia and taking an MTA commuter bus? Looks like Route 929 would be the best bet. Or maybe Route 915 and get off at the Silver Spring Metro station.

There's always driving. If she lived in Columbia, she could take either Route 29 or I-95. If she were on 95, she could take the Beltway west to the Route 29 exit and head south into Silver Spring to link up with 16th Street NW and take that to downtown Washington. That's about 29 miles. I think I'd leave about an hour and a half for the trip.

Any version can be an unpredictable trip. There may be delays and canceled trips on MARC. In my e-mail this morning, I've got 11 service advisories so far about MARC trains. The bus and the car will get stuck in traffic from Silver Spring on south.

I think I might go for the MTA Route 929 commuter bus. It's likely to be a longer trip than driving herself, but at least somebody else is driving, and she won't have to pay to warehouse her car all day long in downtown DC.

Am I forgetting some options, or some difficulties?

By Robert Thomson  |  April 28, 2009; 8:58 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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I have a similar commute, but work next to Union Station, so MARC is an easier call. I'd urge your reader to consider the MARC Penn Line (BWI or Odenton); service is more frequent and often faster than Camden Line, and the drive to the station not much longer. For all of the service alerts (including today, when we were told while on the train that we would have to get off at New Carrollton, only to end up going to Union Station), MARC is very reliable. And road traffic and accidents never matter, as they would for commuter bus.

Posted by: kevinmscott | April 28, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

"On MARC, if she drives to Dorsey, Jessup, Savage or Laurel on the Camden Line, isn't she going to find the parking areas and the trains crowded?"

The answer: Is a qualified "not at all!" Dorsey and Savage stations have ample parking - 750 spot at Dorsey and nearly 1000 at Savage (free, BTW!). Assuming she wants to arrive at her office before 8:30 in the morning, she'd have absolutely no problems finding a parking spot at the Dorsey or Savage stations and catching MARC train 845 (departing Dorsey and Savage at 6:34 and 6:42, respectively) or train 847 (6:59 and 7:09, respectively). She'd also get a seat! Crowding and parking only become issues from Laurel Station on south.

"When she gets to Union Station, she'll still have to get to the area west of the White House where her job is. She can take Metrorail to Farragut West, but that means changing trains at Metro Center, for a total of three transfers on a one-way commute. (Okay, she could take the Red Line to Farragut North and walk a little farther.)" Boo hoo! You actually only transfer twice, once from MARC to Metro at Union Sta. and then again from Red to Blue/Orange (if you really wanted to) at Metro Center. FWIW, Farragut North is what, a whole block away from Farragut West, at least off of 17th? That aside, transferring is not a big issue - how long do you need to wait for a train on the Red or on the Orange/Blue lines during the AM rush? 3 minutes?? I do this every single day. I moved from Columbia, where I took the Camden Line daily, to northeast of Baltimore where I now catch the Penn Line to Union Station and head over to my office in the Federal Triangle area of town.

Other options? Drive I-95 to Greenbelt Metro.

Posted by: chumbucket | April 28, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

I also have a similar commute - I live in Columbia and work near metro center. The MARC Camden line is pretty reliable, even though there are fewer trains, and the Savage train station always has parking. As does Dorsey. Laurel parking gets full. There are express trains on the Camden line - I'm at usually at Union Station in about half an hour. I live on the south side of columbia near Hammond High and the Savage station is 5 minutes from my house. I also have the option of driving to odenton for the penn line, it's about 15+ minutes and parking is tricky and can be far from the station. The time on the train is about the same but there are more Penn line trains during the day and they run later at night. I have also driven to Greenbelt - about 20-30 minutes avg. in rush hour - to get the metro.

Posted by: designergirl | April 28, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

I live in Ellicott City just north of the intersection of Rts 108 & 29, and I drive in to 11th & Penn. Coming down Rt 29 to Rt 650 (NH Ave) to N. Capitol St., it takes about an hour and 20 minutes to an hour and a half (less in the summer). In my experience, Rt 29 tends to be quicker than 95, because you can avoid the congestion where 95 meets the Beltway. By getting off at NH Ave. instead of going over to 16th St., you avoid much of the traffic heading in to Silver Spring (which starts to back up pretty heavily where 29 goes down to 2 lanes right at the exit for NH Ave), although maybe if you're going all the way over to 17th it's worth staying on 29 to 16th St. For me, driving is the best option because it's quicker than taking MARC/Metro and gives me more flexibility than the MARC schedule permits (we have kids, so flexibility is key).

If you need to live in Howard County, I'd go as far south as you can near Rt. 29 (Fulton, Highland, etc.). You'd probably be looking at a little over an hour's drive (from the point where Rt 216 hits Rt 29).

Posted by: anonymous49 | April 28, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I'd also like to point out that if you have a monthly MARC pass, the metro buses (but not the circulator) are free in DC. There are quite a few that stop in front of Union Station. Perhaps there is one that goes near her office. I think the D3, the D6 and the 80 Bus goes over by Farragut.

Posted by: designergirl | April 28, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

If you're in HoCo (such northern Laurel, Savage, etc.), try catching the Penn Line at Odenton. Parking is plentiful and you're on a clean electric rail line that is fast and one where, if there is a derailment or other trouble, workarounds are more doable. The Camden Line is just two tracks; the Penn Line is four.

Oh, and the double-decker plus cars on the Penn are much nicer! And the AC works.

Posted by: bs2004 | April 28, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse


The Penn Line is 3 tracks south of Halethorpe, and 2 tracks south of New Carrolton. Just a little nitpicking. :)

Besides that, I'd like to agree that the Penn Line is far superior to the Camden Line in every way, and suggest to our Howard County reader that taking the Penn Line train from Odenton is the best option. Faster trains, longer trains (Camden trains are between 3-5 cars; no Penn Line rush hour train with the exception of Train 450 has less than 6), and more comfortable service make the Penn Line a better option. Camden Line trains suffer from delays from freight trains, and heat restrictions in the afternoons, which will add 20-30 minute delays most days.

I will caution, though, that some of the Penn Line trains (read: the ones that originate in Perryville instead of Penn Station) are severely crowded by the time they arrive at Odenton, so she will want to consult the schedules carefully.

Posted by: pikamander007 | April 28, 2009 10:37 PM | Report abuse

We have several folks in our office who do that exact commute (we're at 17th and Pennsylvania, too). Ellicott City and Columbia both allow easy access to commuter buses that drop within a few blocks and I rarely if ever hear complaints about problems with service, too few options, etc. On the other hand, our MARC riders have a few more complaints - breakdowns/slowdowns on the trains, having to transfer from MARC to Red Line, dealing with two potential sources of delays (especially on the getting home end, when a hiccup with the red line could have serious consequences in catching MARC out of the city). As for Farragut West vs. Farragut North, only one block separates the two stations - walking it is much faster than dealing with the hassle of transferring at Metro Center.

Posted by: sciencegrrl | April 29, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

If you are going to drive, I'd suggest some route that uses Rock Creek Parkway. That road is great during rush hour, and you can take I-66 west to E Street and be only a few short blocks away from 17th and Penn.

Posted by: thetan | April 30, 2009 12:48 AM | Report abuse

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