The costs of commuting
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STRASBURG — Forty-one-year-old Calvin Wallace, a construction superintendent, is a “super commuter.”
Since moving to Strasburg from Prince George’s County in 2003, Wallace has gotten up between 1:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. to hit the road to visit his company’s many construction projects in the Northern Virginia and Maryland area.
“I spend anywhere between four to six hours on my commute each day,” Wallace said. “I feel like I’ve spent half my life on the road. When you’re on the road all the time, you don’t eat right and you don’t get much exercise.”
Wallace said he typically works 10-hour shifts, however some days it can be as much as 12 to 14 hours. Driving his trusty Chevy Silverado, Wallace said he pays anywhere between $45 to $75 to fill up his tank and puts on about 50,000 miles a year on his vehicles.
However, Wallace said the biggest cost is not money.
“I love my family, I love my life, I love what I do for a living, but the biggest effect on me isn’t the cost of commuting, it’s the loss of time with my family,” Wallace said. “I got 11 more years to go before I can hang up my cape and my commute.”
Wallace said he would like to find work closer to home, but none can be found.
“I’m in commercial construction, but there’s not a lot of that around Shenandoah County,” Wallace said. “I have to go to the city to find work to support my family.”
While Wallace is an extreme example of the area’s commuters, he is not alone. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 44,756 residents in the Northern Shenandoah Valley Region commute outside the region for work. In Shenandoah County, 9,172 commute outside the county and 11,498 commute outside Warren County.
Martha Shickle, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, said the costs of commuting are both financial and social.
“There’s a time, money and health component that add up to immeasurable costs,” Shickle said. “Sitting in traffic can add stress that can shorten your life. Being on the road all the time doesn’t allow you to engage in your community as well.”
Shickle said when people leave the area to work in the D.C. area they might not always take into account the costs of traveling to work.
“Sometimes people get excited about the idea of salary but they don’t necessarily factor in their commuting costs,” Shickle said. “But if they factored in the costs of commuting, they might see they could make the same amount taking a lower salary here, but not traveling as far.”
To that end, Shickle’s organization has put in place a commuter calculator on its website so people can be better informed about the cost of travel. The commission also has started the RideSmart program, a free service for valley residents to see who is vanpooling or carpooling, as well as a subsidies to a vanpool and a guaranteed two rides home a year in case someone in the carpool can not make it.
Shickle said the region should do all it can to attract new industries, as well as working on retaining people inside the community.
“With public employees, we have a hard time retaining them because other localities pay much more, so that’s an area we can work with,” Shickle said. “I think a lot of it is not the industry type, but the type of work they’re doing … the jobs exist here, but they might not be thinking about them because of the salary ranges.”
Shickle said the economic benefits of retaining locals in the area are massive.
“When people live and work in the same area, they are more likely to shop locally, which benefits the local economy, and with less people on the road, we won’t have to incur a cost of expanding the highway,” Shickle said.
Jennifer McDonald, executive director of the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority, said commuting outside Warren County hurts the local economy.
“When people leave the area to go to work, they’re spending money outside our area, whether it be on groceries or a lunch break,” McDonald said. “When they come home, after being on the road for an hour or two, they’re too tired to go spend their money at local businesses.”
McDonald said her organization has been working on the commuting issue for quite a while.
“We know we have the talent to support industries with higher paying, white collar jobs,” McDonald said. “We are constantly trying to attract employers who can employ that workforce and bring our people home.”
Brandon Davis, director of community development for Shenandoah County, said he believes commuting is not a problem at all.
“I think we are very lucky to have a metropolitan area with such high paying jobs in driving distance of our county,” Davis said. “It allows people working out there to bring back the wealth and spend it in our county.”
Davis said while the county is always working with businesses to diversify the local economy, having Northern Virginia at its backdoor is a great asset.
“There’s a lot of competition for getting good paying jobs like manufacturing to relocate to your county,” Davis said. “In our case, I think we’re lucky and blessed to have this resource, so even for people who want to live here, if they can’t find their profession here, they have the option to commute to the city.”
The solutions vary as to how to decrease the commute time. Wallace said from his personal experience, a lot of the congestion is caused by varying speeds among motorists.
“Everybody wants to drive fast, so you have people going 70, 80 miles per hour and they come up to somebody going 50 or 60, they got to slow down,” Wallace said. “If everyone went the same speed, there would be constant flow.”
Wallace said he believes if a Metro Line was extended to Front Royal that would help to clear up the roads.
Shickle said her organization is looking into establishing a bus line for the rural population to get to urbanized areas, and is working with the Virginia Department of Transportation to see about expanding existing commuter lots in Linden and Front Royal, as well as establishing more lots in the Shenandoah Valley.
Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com