Some Columbia, Md., residents found that there was no easy way to get to their jobs in distant Washington and did something about it: They started their own bus company.
That was almost 17 years ago, and during those years the Columbia Commuter Bus Corp. provided an affordable and comfortable way to face the daily 60-mile round trip.
Times changed. Insurance costs multiplied, contributing to insurmountable financial problems. Van pool operators offered commuters cheaper fares and gave stiff competition to the CCBC, as the bus line was popularly known.
Finally, last Friday, the CCBC buses made their final trips.
The CCBC was one of only a handful of similar services in the country, and it was operated with the encouragement of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Last month, in a last-ditch effort, the CCBC turned to the Transportation Department for a federal grant that initially looked promising.
But Transportation officials then learned that the CCBC president was a Transportation Department employe and decided that awarding the grant might be an ethical conflict.
The CCBC's demise is similar to what happened to a commuter bus service a few years ago in the planned community of Reston.
Its death leaves one bus line, the privately operated Eyre Bus Service, for Columbia's 52,500 residents.
The CCBC operation was growing steadily until about six years ago, its heyday, when it ran 18 buses that made 36 daily trips carrying as many as 800 commuters.
The service was controlled by a board of directors made up of commuters. The board was responsible for scheduling the buses, mapping routes, collecting tickets and setting fares.
But Hudson General Coach Lines, a Great Neck, N.Y.-based bus company that had leased vehicles at a reduced rate to the group, was hit with an increase in its liability insurance rates that drove up the cost of the contract with the CBCC.
Paul Lockwood, a Columbia resident and spokesman for the CCBC, said that the increase cost CCBC about $25 more per bus per day. The company increased its weekly fares from $25 to $35 and cut the number of daily trips to six. CCBC ridership dwindled as commuters turned to cheaper van pool and car pool arrangements.
During the last year, the CCBC was serving about 300 commuters a day, but it was still losing about $1,000 a week.
The CCBC now owes about $130,000 in back payments in its contract with Hudson.
The CCBC board of directors applied for a $120,000 federal grant from the federal Urban Mass Transit Authority, which is part of the Department of Transportation.
After a meeting with UMTA official Ken Butler, Lockwood said, he and others were optimistic that the grant would be approved. "When we left that meeting, we were walking on air. It was a reprieve; we really thought we were going to make it."
After that meeting, Butler said, he discovered that Eric Bers, an UMTA employe who worked in his office, was also president of the CCBC.
Butler said he immediately consulted with UMTA's attorney, who advised him that in light of Bers' position in the CCBC, approval of the grant could be interpreted as a conflict of interest.
In an interview yesterday, Bers insisted that Butler was fully aware of his affiliation with the CCBC because he notified him in a written memo last year when he was elected president.
Butler said he does not remember receiving the memo. He said that although the CCBC would have been a "good candidate" for the grant, he has refused to process their request. "There is no way we can within ethical or legal boundaries," he said.
Yesterday, commuters who had come to depend on the service started riding to work with friends or trying to find spots in the many van pools that ply Rte. 29 daily between Howard County and the District.
Some Columbia residents had already switched to alternate transportation, but bemoaned the collapse of CCBC anyway.
Edward Murphy, a rider on the CCBC for 12 years, said he started riding in a van pool when the CCBC began eliminating some of its routes. "Right now I'm in a van pool and it's not as comfortable as the bus," he said. "In a van pool you don't have the same flexibilty because you have to pay whether you ride or not" -- commuters could pay their bus fare on a daily basis -- "and you have to leave at the same time every day."
Columbia resident Ed Cutler, a researcher for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, used CCBC until he began to operate his own van pool.