Residents of Maricopa who work or whose children attend school in the Phoenix metropolitan area are probably as familiar with the asphalt of State Route 347 and the sight of brake lights in front of them as they are their own homes or offices.
What they may not be so familiar with, however, is exactly how much that commute is costing them.
As the city has grown, it places an increasing strain on traffic not only on SR 347, but also on Interstate 10 heading inbound to Phoenix. New connections, such as the southern Loop 202 interchange with I-10, have also played factors in dumping more and more vehicles on one of the Valley’s main arterials. But more than just the distance the drive takes each way for so many Maricopans into the city or the increasing amount of time it takes to make that drive, it is the cost of the commute that can determine whether or not purchasing a larger home for a more reasonable price ends up being economically beneficial.
A Forbes Magazine study released last month analyzed major cities across the United States for what the average citizen spends on both housing and transportation, weighing the costs of a longer drive versus more inexpensive housing. Topping the list was Houston, where the cost of transportation in that sprawling metropolis has become so high on average that it has outpaced what the normal citizen spends on housing.
Not far behind, however, was Phoenix, checking in at No. 8 on the list of cities with the most expensive commute. According to Forbes, residents of Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs spend 19.6 percent of their total budget on transportation-related expenses, with an annual delay (time grid-locked in traffic) at 49 hours.
Those numbers, applied Maricopa, would obviously be near the peak in terms of delay and money spent due to the sheer amount of mileage driven by its citizens to work each day.
A resident survey released by the city in December 2006 showed 49 percent of Maricopans travel between 21 and 30 miles each way to work while nearly another 20 percent traveled more than 40 miles each way. Those numbers were backed by a resident survey conducted by the Pat Davis Design Group for their branding research. In those results, released last month, just more than 60 percent of residents drive between 16 and 49 miles each way to their jobs.
The Forbes study found that the cities high on the list of most expensive commutes had little to no commuter train systems in place – a fact then doubly verified as four of the five cities found to have the cheapest commutes have extensive rail systems.
Maricopa’s first major attempt at publicly-funded mass transit gets off the ground in the spring with the launch of a two-year trial run for bus service to various locations in the Valley. Discussions about commuter rail systems have remained essentially that – discussions, although various studies are under way at the state level and Phoenix is preparing to open the first stretch of its downtown-based, multi-city light rail system in December 2008.
Hitting home, hitting pocketbooks
Joe Estes knew what he was getting into when he moved his family to Maricopa in 2004 and didn’t really mind the commute, believing the opportunity to purchase a quality home in Maricopa made the extra distance in the drive worthwhile. Then his commute doubled.
Estes, a Maricopa City Councilmember, said his commute has gone from 40 minutes to 80 to downtown Phoenix, where he works in private practice as a lawyer. Now splitting time between his office in Maricopa and downtown Phoenix, Estes said as recently as May he was still making the drive to Phoenix almost every day of the week, hampering many aspects of his life.
“It had gotten so bad that I got an alternative fuel car that allowed me to get into the carpool lane, which saves me about 20 minutes each way,” Estes said. “It really affects just about every aspect of my life... from the time I have to spend with my family to the time I have to get things done around the house. You’re talking about two to three hours every day just stuck in a car.”
Estes said he would have to take large chunks off from his day in Phoenix – more than just leaving a little early – if he wanted to make it back to Maricopa for his son’s football game or other activities in which his children are participating.
“It’s a big headache,” Estes said of the commute, which he said has become more bearable since he began listening to books on CD during the drive. “I can breeze through books in a week now. That made the commute a lot smoother.”
Commuting commonplace for some
Finding a way to make the commute more peaceful and enjoyable has been key for Maricopa Fire Chief Bill Kelleher. The FD’s top guy has an opposite commute of many Maricopans, living in Fountain Hills and working in Maricopa, but can certainly relate to their travel woes, making a 54-mile commute each way to and from work.
Kelleher, who has stopped to assist on at least a half-dozen accidents in the past two years during his commute, said being able to play his iPod in the car makes the drive a bit more bearable, listening to classical music in the mornings and a mix of selections on the way home. For a man who has lived in both New York and Ireland, Kelleher said a long commute is nothing new.
“It’s pretty much what you do back East. The difference with this is that it is a high-speed commute going against the traffic,” Kelleher said. “I’ve been in management for 25 years and you pretty much just get used to the commute. It’s well worth it.”
“It’s a lifestyle trade-off,” Estes said. “You get a nicer, more affordable house in exchange for putting in longer hours on the road.”
In those long hours touching rubber to road, especially with the current construction on SR 347, both men warned the importance of driving carefully and cautiously, expressing the need to leave a few extra minutes for travel time when traffic is slower than usual.
“You have to keep your eyes wide open and your wits about you,” Kelleher said. “With all the construction going on, you can’t afford to make a mistake.”