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Tuesday, May 28, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Workers trade long commutes for less expensive housing

The Associated Press

BREMERTON — As ferry riders around him read novels, pay bills and chat on cellphones, Michael Hamilton concentrates on writing a history lecture for later that day.

"It's part of my world. I don't mind it," Hamilton says of the hour-plus commute between his home in Kitsap County and his job as a professor at Seattle Pacific University.

Computing the commute


The average commute time in Washington state increased from 22 minutes in 1990 to 25.5 minutes in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Travel time to work ranged from 15.2 minutes in Walla Walla County to 32.5 minutes in Kitsap County. Following are the average county commute times in minutes in 2000, ranked from longest to shortest:

Kitsap: 32.5
Pend Oreille: 31.5
Mason: 30.8
Snohomish: 29.6
Skamania: 29.2
Island: 28.8
Pierce: 28.4
Wahkiakum: 28.1
Stevens: 27
King: 26.5
Jefferson: 26
Lewis: 25.7
Skagit: 25.1
Clark: 24.7
Thurston: 24.4
Ferry: 24
Grays Harbor: 22.4
Lincoln: 22.1
Kittitas: 22
Klickitat: 21.9
Benton: 21.5
Clallam: 21.4
Cowlitz: 21.3
Spokane: 21.2
Franklin: 20.9
Whatcom: 20.8
Pacific: 20.7
Okanogan: 19.6
Yakima: 19.4
Douglas: 19.1
Columbia: 18.7
Garfield: 18.3
Adams: 17.7
Chelan: 17.7
Grant: 17.7
Asotin: 16.8
San Juan: 15.8
Whitman: 15.6
Walla Walla: 15.2

Ferry riders like Hamilton nudged Kitsap County into the top spot for longest commute in the state, at an average of 33 minutes according to Census 2000 figures. Every morning, thousands of commuters throng Washington roads and ferries in the daily exodus from affordable housing to good-paying jobs.

Kitsap County is affordable enough that Hamilton's wife can stay home with their three children, including one handicapped son who requires constant care. They paid $115,000 for their 1,400-square-foot house three years ago — the same house could easily cost three times as much in King County. Median home value in King County was $84,800 more than in Kitsap County in 2000, according to census figures.

Workers tolerate the second-longest commute, 32 minutes, in Pend Oreille County in the state's northeastern corner. The third-longest is Mason County, northwest of Olympia, at 31 minutes.

"People are trading off housing and transportation, which is a classic thing people do," said census expert Richard Morrill, professor emeritus at the University of Washington.

The census numbers say more about personal choices than traffic tie-ups. People generally accept a 25- to 27-minute commute, Morrill said. Pushed over that limit, most will make changes — move closer to work or take a job closer to home. The average commute in Washington is 26 minutes.

Throughout the 1990s, the Texas Transportation Institute has ranked Seattle second, and sometimes third, in the list of American cities with the worst traffic (after Los Angeles and sometimes San Francisco).

The congestion not only frustrates commuters but hurts businesses across the state that must move goods through Puget Sound. This fall, Washington voters will decide whether to increase their gas tax by nine cents a gallon to help pay for $7.7 billion in road improvements.

Even if the roads magically clear up, though, average commuting times may not change much. Studies show that people will take advantage of uncrowded roads by buying nicer houses farther from their jobs, Morrill said.

"Even if we spend $15 billion on highways and trains, they'll go farther to find desirable housing," Morrill said.

The desire to live comfortably motivates people to buy homes far from their jobs. Like Kitsap County, Pend Oreille and Mason counties boast cheaper housing than the nearest urban areas (Spokane for Pend Oreille County and Olympia and Tacoma for Mason County).

Their economies traditionally relied on natural-resources jobs, mainly logging. The downturn in the timber industry during the 1990s forced workers to seek jobs elsewhere — often a long haul away.

"It's amazing how far they will go," said Tim Sheldon, a state senator who also is executive director of the Mason County Economic Development Council. About one-third of the county's work force leaves Mason County daily, he said, to work in Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia or Bremerton.

"They're looking for better jobs. It's really a tough situation," he said.

Tim Brown knows exactly how tough it is. A native of Mason County, he worked for a sawmill in his hometown until it shut down. In 1989 he started commuting to the company's other mill in Spanaway, a 100-mile round trip.

The commute took him about an hour in the mornings but could last up to two and a half hours in the afternoons. When he got home after 10-hour shifts at the sawmill, he could barely drag himself through dinner, give the kids a bath and get to bed. He had no time to spend with his wife, a factor he thinks contributed to their divorce.

"It put you in a bad mood," he said of the commute. "There's a lot of stress."

The family could have moved from Shelton to Olympia and split the commute, but houses cost more there. (The median housing value in Mason County is $132,300, according to the 2000 census, compared with $145,200 in Thurston County.) So he kept driving, while searching for a good job closer to home.

When a $12.62-an-hour meter-reading job opened up at the Mason County Public Utility District this year, Brown was one of 162 applicants, Sheldon said.

He got the job last month and gratefully accepted, even though it meant a pay cut to start.

"I make a lot less money but I'm a lot happier," Brown said. "It's a good trade-off."

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