A Howard County company that started commuter bus runs between Columbia and the District was expected this week to lose its state contract to operate that service after a subsidiary of a Florida company submitted a lower bid.
For the past 25 years, Eyre Bus Service, a family-owned firm based in Glenelg, has shuttled riders back and forth between Columbia and other points in Howard and Washington. But the Maryland Transit Administration decided to recommend that Eyre's contract not be renewed after it received a lower bid from Dillon's Bus Service Inc.
The state Board of Public Works was expected to formally approve the $16.9 million, three-year contract with Dillon's at its meeting yesterday. The company would begin handling the three Howard-to-Washington routes, which serve about 1,600 people daily, on Sept 1.
"We have enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the incumbent and are looking forward to providing our customers with the same level of service with the new vendor," said Cheron Wicker, a spokeswoman for the MTA.
Some riders have been telling state officials and community leaders they are not happy about a new company taking over.
"I am getting a lot of calls from constituents," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Columbia), who expressed her concern to Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. "They think Eyre has done a really, really good job for a really long time, and they are concerned about changing to another company."
Richard Kirchner, a founder of Transportation Advocates of Howard County, said he also has received calls from anxious commuters. "The allegations they make is that the awardee is an out-of-state firm who they are not sure has the resources to pick up these routes," he said.
Dillon's began in 1918 in Anne Arundel County as a family-owned company that provided school bus service. It entered the commuter bus business in the 1980s, eventually becoming a subsidiary of American Coach Lines in Lake Worth, Fla., last year.
Ron Dillon, controller of Dillon's, said being part of a larger bus company would help the firm offer Howard commuters better service.
"Regardless of who owns the buses, my name is on the side of it, and I have a certain pride to maintain," he said. The company already operates MTA bus routes between Annapolis and Washington, Kent Island and Washington and Harford County and Baltimore.
"This is nothing to new to us. We know how to do this particular work, and we have the expertise to do this," he said.
Dillon said all the buses in the company's fleet are accessible to handicapped passengers, as required by the state. He said the company is now hiring many of the drivers Eyre used on its Columbia-to-Washington routes.
"The customers will just be riding on a different bus," he said.
The MTA offers weekday service between Howard and Washington on the 915, 929 and 995 bus routes for from $3.50 to $4.25 each way. In the morning, the 995 buses run from the Clarksville area to the Park and Ride lot on Broken Land Parkway and Route 32 and down Interstate 95 to Washington.
The other two routes snake through Columbia before traveling down Route 29 to Silver Spring and then on to Washington.
Wicker said that to keep fares as low as possible, the MTA has to seek out the lowest bidder who can adequately fulfill the contract. Under state and federal regulations, the MTA is required to recover 40 percent of its operating costs from fares, Wicker said.
Dillon said the company's ties to a larger corporation made it possible for it to underbid Eyre. He said the difference in bids was about $300,000. "Because of our size and having purchasing power, we are able to buy our buses cheaper," he said.
Steve Parker, operations manager for Eyre, said he would have preferred that state officials had also considered his company's track record in awarding the bid.
"We have done a very good job for the folks who travel from Columbia into Washington for work," Parker said. "I guess when the state is constrained by the consideration of price only, it makes it difficult."
Eyre's bus service from Columbia began in the mid-1970s as a venture between the company and the Columbia Association, which provides amenities for the community such as bike paths, swimming pools, golf courses and an ice rink.
Eventually, the state took over responsibility for the bus routes but continued to use Eyre as the contractor.
Eyre operated bus service from Columbia to Baltimore for the MTA but was underbid on that contract four years ago. It still operates the service between Hagerstown, Frederick and the District.
Howard officials say Eyre's commuter service is one reason they believe more county residents are using buses to commute to work in the District.
"We hear from people how beneficial the service is, " said Gary Sightler, Howard County's commuter solutions coordinator. "The big advantage we hear from people is it offers flexibility."
Parker said Eyre experienced a 15 percent increase in ridership over the past three years, which county officials are seeing reflected at Park and Ride lots.
The Broken Land Parkway lot, where many commuters catch the bus to Washington, had average of 340 cars each weekday in June, about 20 more than the lot was built to accommodate.