Every weekday morning, Gary Hardesty joins hundreds of other commuters at the Odenton MARC station in a long game of hurry-up-and-wait.
Hardesty, an Army Corps of Engineers restoration manager, leaves his Ellicott City home at 5:30 a.m. so that he can park at the Odenton MARC station by 6:05 a.m., then does the crossword puzzle as he waits for the 7:19 a.m. train to Washington.
"I wait almost an hour," he said, "but I get a spot every day."
It's not crowded trains that bring these commuters to the station before the crack of dawn. It's the lack of parking.
By 7:20 a.m., every one of the 1,300 parking spaces in the lot is taken. That leaves not nearly enough spaces for the 2,000 passengers who board the 10 morning trains to Washington from the Odenton station every day.
The shortage is forcing commuters to become more creative in planning routes to work.
Some, including Hardesty, arrive so early that they sit around waiting for a train just to keep their MARC-bus-Metro schedule on track.
Some park elsewhere and take taxis or shuttle buses. The truly desperate cram into illegal spots on the fringes of the MARC lot, risking steep fines, or leave their cars along the few back roads without posted "No Parking" signs.
"Odenton has become a victim of its own success," said MARC spokesman Richard Scher. "It's such a popular stop for MARC riders that it has exceeded its parking capacity."
Odenton is the only station on the MARC's popular Penn line between Baltimore and Washington with such an acute parking problem, MARC officials say. Recently, MARC has expanded the parking lots at the Halethorpe and West Baltimore stations, and the stations at Bowie State and Baltimore-Washington International Airport have ample parking.
To alleviate Odenton's parking woes, MARC recently began offering free parking to monthly passengers at the BWI Rail Station, about six miles from Odenton. MARC also leases about 250 spots at Odenton's fire station, a grassy and often muddy plot about a 10-minute walk from the train.
Even with the fire station lot, close to 450 people are unable to park legally near the MARC station, Scher said. The state plans to build a 700-space surface lot, but Scher said it probably won't be open until late 2005.
The shortage angers Seven Oaks activist Zoe Draughon, who has racked up $987 in parking tickets, most from parking illegally in the MARC lot when spaces ran out.
Now that the Washington firm where she works has temporarily moved to Baltimore, Draughon is driving and parking in expensive Inner Harbor lots, and she isn't happy about it.
"Everybody who rides the train likes the train. Thousands of people know that this is a good thing but that MARC is just ruining it," she said. "The MTA has created a situation where they're giving people little or no choice."
The choices are difficult for morning commuters.
If Tara Davis, a U.S. Department of Commerce worker with diabetes and a sprained ankle, can't get a handicapped parking spot, she hails a taxi from Odenton, at $6 each way, or drives to the BWI rail station to make her 8:02 a.m. train.
That's where Eric Hewins was headed on 7:25 a.m. Tuesday, when he couldn't find a parking spot in Odenton.
"I figured it would be a losing gamble, but what the heck," said Hewins, adding that if an Odenton parking garage opened, he would gladly pay to park.
Many agree that they would pay a little extra for a few more minutes of sleep. Paralegal Leif Lind's commute from Crownsville to Potomac on trains, buses and the Metro takes him 4 1/2 hours a day, about an hour less than it would if he drove.
"I wish there were adequate parking. I have a long enough commute as it is," Lind said.
Commuters aren't the only ones wishing and hoping. Businesses near the station are magnets for harried commuters.
At the Bank of Glen Burnie, next to the station's Route 175 entrance, managers posted signs warning that parking is for customers only and that everyone else will be towed. But Patricia Miller, the branch manager and assistant vice president, said the bank doesn't like taking such a hard line.
"We try to talk to them nicely," she said. "If we can't catch them, we put a nice note on their car."
Across from the bank, Reliable Contracting is using a grassy lot as part of its staging area for a Route 175 improvement job. This year, the lot's owner began a fledgling parking business, charging $2 a day for a lawn spot.
But it wasn't cost-effective to staff the lot, and commuters parked for free if the attendant was gone, so Reliable took down the $2-a-day sign and posted "No Parking" signs. Soon, those were torn down, and commuters resumed parking for free.
"We don't walk out and stop people," said Reliable general manager Rob Scrivener. "But it is very inconvenient. It puts us in a bad situation."