Even before dawn stretches across the horizon, many Howard County residents are awake, dressed and dashing out the door for the daily commute to jobs in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., areas.
Despite a booming local work force, nearly two-thirds of all Howard workers commute outside the county every day -- the highest proportion of such commuters in the Baltimore region, according to the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.
"We have more people than we have jobs," said county planner, Roselle George, explaining why so many residents in one of the nation's wealthiest communities commute elsewhere for their livelihood.
And while they may have solid economic incentives for their daily treks, the legions who commute via car, car-pool, van-pool, bus or MARC train often endure a costly, time-consuming and stressful routine.
"It's not fun," says Flemena Barnes, a mother of five in Columbia's Long Reach Village who rises at 4: 30 a.m. to catch a bus to the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C. tTC "Just think of how much more of my life I could live if I didn't spend so much time on the road."
She is among Howard's many out-of-county commuters.
According to the 1990 census, 64.2 percent of Howard's 109,843 workers had jobs outside the county -- 31 percent of them in the Baltimore area, 32 percent in the Washington, D.C., area and 1.2 percent in Virginia or other states. The remaining 35.8 percent worked here.
Howard's proportion of out-of-county commuters is significantly higher than the overall pattern in Maryland, in which fewer than half of all workers leave their home jurisdiction en route to jobs.
In Howard, the vast majority of all commuters -- about 81 percent -- drive to work alone, while only 2.3 percent use public transportation.
All that travel can be time consuming.
The Census found that nearly a quarter of Howard's out-of-county commuters traveled more than 40 minutes each way in their daily commute. The average commute was just 27.6 minutes -- longer than the national average of 22.4 minutes.
For many, the commute also is getting more complex, said Alan E. Pisarski, a national transportation consultant based in Falls Church, Va.
Increasingly, commuters travel from suburb to suburb, he said. And many female commuters are "trip chaining" -- that means they not only drive to work "but are doing a whole bunch of things to and from work," such as dropping children off at school or picking up laundry.
Ann Kelly, of Hickory Ridge, can relate to that.
"I get up at 5: 30 [a.m.] and I'm pretty lucky that my husband [fixes] the lunches and breakfasts," she said.
At 6: 40 a.m., she and her daughter are out the door. "I drop her off at The Mall [in Columbia] and she gets the bus to her high school [Notre Dame Prep School]."
By 7: 03 a.m., Kelly is at the park-n-ride at Broken Land Parkway and Route 32 -- the county's most popular -- to catch the 7: 15 a.m. Eyre bus to Baltimore. Once aboard, she recognizes familiar faces -- most of which are very sleepy.
"I prefer to take the bus because it's relaxing," Kelly explained. "It gives me ... time to sleep or read."
Many agree. Last year, county residents took 410,000 one-way trips on the private Eyre bus services, said Eyre's traffic consultant, Landon L. Browning.
For about 12 percent of all Howard commuters, car pooling is the preferred mode of transportation.
Anthony Cuticchia, 54, of Ellicott City is one of them. He has commuted to downtown Washington by a variety of means since 1980.
To get to work by 7: 15 a.m., the realty specialist for NASA, wakes at 5 a.m. Then he's out the door to reach the Broken Land park-n-ride. There by 6: 15 a.m., he joins flocks of others who scurry in the dark to find parking spots and their rides.
On a recent cloudy morning, Cuticchia drove his car-pool mate's Toyota Camry. The car's owner, Saundra Furey -- too shy to give her age -- sat beside him, and the third car-pooler, Daniel Leonard, 45, of Columbia's River Hill village, sat in the rear.
For four years, Cuticchia and Furey, of Columbia's Owen Brown village, have commuted together. They met at a bus stop in Washington and devised a quicker commuting plan. Leonard joined later.
During the 45-minute ride via Interstate-95 that morning, the federal workers discussed their agenda and current events. There was no music to drown their conversation.
"Unlike other car-pools, there are no subjects off limit," Furey boasted.
"Sex," Cuticchia quickly interjected. "It's just a private thing, you don't want to discuss in public."
"We talk about sex," countered Furey. "I was telling Dan yesterday what I pulled up on ... the Internet."
Before falling asleep in the rear seat -- which is reserved for resting -- Leonard said: "I'd rather not [commute]." He added, however, "the earlier you get up, the earlier you get home. So there's a benefit to it."
"I'm a morning person, so it doesn't bother me," Furey, a research analyst for the Department of Education, said of her 4 a.m. rise.