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The long way home

It's getting longer. Workers' commutes now average more than 29 minutes each way.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002


Against the waning darkness, bright white lights shine from high upon the 7-Eleven store, which has already drawn dozens of droopy-eyed, coffee-craving commuters by 7 a.m.

Jeffrey Honour, manager of the store on Spring Hill Drive near the Suncoast Parkway, tries to make each one chuckle. "Oh, is this for me?" or "You didn't want change, did you?" are his lines to teachers en route to Pasco schools or Tampa-bound nurses who have given him large bills in exchange for a $1.06 coffee.

Like Spring Hill resident Cindy Rundell, the commuters are fueling up for the long journey -- 45 minutes to an hour to their jobs down south.

Rundell works as an office manager of Florida Orthopedics in Tampa. "I live in my car," she says with a shrug and a caffeine-laden sigh.

These Hernando County residents are among thousands who watch the sun rise from inside their cars and trucks.

Throughout the 1990s, more Hernando residents spent more time driving to jobs, according to information released last week from the 2000 U.S. Census. They are commuting farther, and it's also taking longer to get there.

A third of Hernando's commuting work force -- nearly 14,000 people -- leave the county each day for jobs in Tampa, New Port Richey, Dade City and even places as far away as Sarasota or clear across the state to Daytona Beach. Census estimates show they tend to live near major thoroughfares, like Interstate 75 and U.S. 19. However, the information does not show where, exactly, commuters are going.

Mike McHugh, director of the Hernando County Office of Business Development, said the number of workers leaving the county is typical for a semirural county near a large urban area.

He points out that the opening of the Suncoast Parkway in 2001 continues to drain the Hernando labor force.

He also sees opportunity, however. The out-of-county commuters are a potential work force that could be wooed to return to Hernando, he says, given the right new industry.

"These are qualified people who work somewhere else, but would prefer to work locally," McHugh said.

In the meantime, all commuters are spending more time in their vehicles, as the average Hernando County commute rose six minutes, to 29 minutes one way, according to census estimates, which included surveys of about one in six households nationwide and are subject to sampling error.

A Hernando resident's average commute ranked 14th among the state's longest commutes and a minute shorter than Pasco County's average, which ranked 11th. Those numbers include workers who commute to jobs within and outside the county.

One reason commutes rose across the county is that the population grew by 29 percent from 1990 to 2000. More people chose to take advantage of the county's quality of life, but many still work in the more job-friendly Tampa Bay area, said Steve Polzin, director of public transit research at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research in Tampa.

"Hernando is serving as a bedroom county for job locations in Hillsborough and Pinellas," Polzin said. "White-collar workers prefer to live in that type of environment, cost of living, schools, and choose to commute where there are better opportunities."

Hitting the road, leaving the county

More than two-thirds of the Ridge Manor work force commuted to jobs outside the county in 2000, despite the arrival of hundreds of new jobs at the Wal-Mart Distribution Center, which opened and expanded throughout the 1990s. The average Ridge Manor commute was about 33 minutes in 2000.

But 33 minutes doesn't even get Ridge Manor 42-year-old Greg Williams halfway to his job, about a two-hour trip to Daytona Beach. For the past 21/2 years, Williams, the Democratic candidate running for the Florida House of Representatives in District 44, has risen at 3 a.m. each morning. He leaves his house shortly after 4 a.m. to reach Daytona by 6:30 a.m., where he works as a classification supervisor for the Florida Department of Corrections.

He took the promotion from his Sumter County prison job because he wanted to advance his career without uprooting his family. His wife also has a good job, as director of cardiopulmonary rehabilitation at East Pasco Medical Center in Zephyrhills.

"This is the best place to raise your children," said Williams, who logs 20 hours a week in his car. "I wanted to be with my kids and my family, so I just decided to make the commute rather than relocating."

Spring Lake commuters regularly log more than an hour of round-trip travel each day. The area's average commute is among the longest in the county -- 36 minutes. Nearly half of the people in Spring Lake who work commuted to jobs outside the county in 2000, including Neil Williams, who daily drove three hours, 130 miles round-trip, to an advertising job at Eckerd Corp. headquarters in Largo.

Williams grew exhausted from the commute and quit his job in March, after more than two years of making the drive. Now, he is unemployed, but job hunting.

"At first I thought it was okay. But after a while, it just wears you down," said Williams, 35, who hopes to find an advertising job in Tampa.

Hernando Metropolitan Planning Organization coordinator Dennis Dix pointed out that more people from the east side of the county are going to commute outside of Hernando because fewer jobs exist in the predominantly rural area.

"If you look at the employment base, there's really not much choice for people living near that corridor," Dix said.

Others commuting to jobs outside the county include about 38 percent of the labor force that lives south of County Road 550 and west of U.S. 19 in far western Hernando and also a section of southwest Spring Hill, where 40 percent of the work force leaves the county for jobs.

Many commuters leaving the county are sprinkled throughout Spring Hill.

They include some of the people who stop at the 7-Eleven on their way to the Suncoast Parkway, boosting sales incredibly since the parkway opened, said the store's manager and a 7-Eleven corporate spokesman.

The 7-Eleven is the closest service station to the Spring Hill Drive entrance to the parkway.

"It's a lot of construction workers and teachers taking the toll road to Tampa," said Ron Powell, a former retiree who regularly works the store's early morning shift, among the store's busiest hours.

In praise of 'quality time' and 'think time'

Longer commutes challenge people to enjoy social aspects of community life, as time in the car means less time spent with families, friends and neighborhood activities.

Stephen Wingreen made that discovery after spending nearly all of his adult working life commuting between 45 minutes and an hour to jobs in Boston and Tallahassee, and eventually from Spring Lake to Tampa as a network manager for two years. Then an opportunity came up to work as a professor of computer information systems at Saint Leo University near Dade City.

Now, starting his fifth year of teaching, his commute to eastern Pasco County is only 15 minutes. He calls it the best decision of his life.

"My quality of life has slowed down to the point that I can have a cup of coffee, and do some work at home in the mornings," said Wingreen, 40, who first moved to Spring Lake in 1996.

Wingreen said he remembers when he used to come home, collapse and feel exhausted, after an hour of contending with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Now, he comes home, mows the lawn and plays with his kids.

"Commutes are so psychologically stressful, driving in the thick of traffic," he said.

But Brooksville resident Mary Thomas Oliver, 48, enjoys her commute to New Port Richey, where she works as a school psychologist.

The Suncoast Parkway allows her to zip down to her job in about half an hour. She said she uses the commute as an opportunity to think, get her life in order, write songs and pray.

"At first I dreaded it," Oliver said as she walked to her car, 7-Eleven bagel and coffee in hand. "But now it's become my time -- my think time."

-- Staff Writer Matthew Waite contributed to this report. Jennifer Liberto covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1434. Send e-mail to liberto@sptimes.com.

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