Friday, June 11, 2004

For some, day gets looong - in the car

By Ledyard King
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - It's 3:10 a.m. in Cherry Hill, N.J., when the alarm clock rouses Bart Fair for his 89-mile commute to Manhattan.

Darrell Pace of Hamilton leaves at 6:30 each morning to make the 50-mile commute to his job as a computer and radio technician in Xenia, Ohio.

In Centerville, Ind., Tomi Chomel gets up at 5 a.m. to drive more than 60 miles to work in Indianapolis.

In Twentynine Palms, Calif., Phyllis Ross climbs into her Dodge Neon at 6:30 a.m. for a 64-mile trek to her job near Palm Springs.

They're part of a hardy class of long-distance travelers, dubbed "stretch commuters," who travel at least 50 miles each way to work.

Stretch commuters get up before dawn and often get home after sunset, riding trains, buses, cars - even planes - for their paychecks. They include white-collar professionals, construction workers, technicians and members of Congress traveling between their home states and Washington.

The federal government estimates there are 3.3 million stretch commuters and that one of every 200 trips to work in the United States is at least 50 miles long. About 33,000 commuters fly to work, though many stay three or four nights close to their jobs.

For stretch commuters, the lure of a high-paying job or the desire to stay close to family is worth the trade-off.

"We like living where we live," Chomel, 51, said as she piloted her cherry red VW Beetle east on Interstate 70 one Friday afternoon to her Centerville home. "I have a 5-acre piece of land, and our neighbors are not really close. It's peaceful and quiet (and) I get the excitement of being in the city."

A systems engineer for a telecommunications company, Chomel makes the drive because she wants to stay in a field she's been in for years and so her husband can practice clinical psychology in their hometown near the Ohio border.

Chomel is a typical stretch commuter in many ways. Most travel between 50 and 74 miles, commute at least four days a week and live in households where the combined income is $50,000 or more.

But Chomel is a rarity in one sense: The overwhelming majority of stretch commuters - 84 percent - are men. Construction and manufacturing workers make up the largest single group (44 percent) of long-distance commuters, followed by those in white-collar jobs (40 percent), according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Many, like Bob Mura of Toms River, N.J., are their family's chief breadwinner. Mura drives his bright yellow Chevrolet Monte Carlo 72 miles to Hoboken, where he edits a financial newsletter.

Mura, 36, has thought about moving his family closer to his job - especially during those snarling traffic jams "that have you banging on the steering wheel wondering what you're doing." But living near the Jersey Shore, where property is cheaper than the New York suburbs, means being able to afford a nicer house.

Long commutes have a price beyond time away from family.

A study in this month's issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that every additional 30 minutes spent in a car each day translates into a 3 percent greater chance of being obese. And years of research by the University of California at Irvine shows that long commutes by car contribute to stress, reduced productivity and a generally sour mood.

The escalating price of gasoline also is forcing stretch commuters to stretch their dollars.

When it was time for Ross to replace her Isuzu Rodeo, she bought her gas-sipping Neon. Even though her monthly gas bill has been cut in half, the office assistant who lives with her aging mother said she still can't afford a place of her own.

"My whole life consists of driving and having money for gas," said Ross, 52, who spends nearly three hours each day commuting to and from her state government job in Bermuda Dunes.

The cost of taking the daily bus ride from Fair's Philadelphia suburb to New York City also has risen modestly.

But for a commuter who rises shortly after 3 a.m. to catch a 4:45 a.m. bus, a few extra bucks aren't a big deal. Fair, a business manager for a financial company, has endured the 89-mile commute for nearly a decade. His morning routine begins with a three-mile car ride from his home and ends with a half-mile walk to his office.

For Pace, the commute is nothing new. He used to drive from Reading to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, each day.

"You have to go where the work is. It's something you just learn to accept as something you have to do."

Pace spends his drive listening to the radio and simply watching the scenery pass.

"It's like a bus driver. They know the route, and they go the same route every day," he said. "It becomes like a machine. You know where you're going and what you have to do."

Enquirer reporter Maggie Downs contributed to this report.

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