Center Studies Costs of Commuter Travel Time

Posted: October 15, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Jocelyn Rappaport

What would a shorter commute to work be worth to you? Director Stephen Fuller and Deputy Director John McClain of the Center for Regional Analysis (CRA) conducted a study of Northern Virginia commuters in summer 2006 that looked at this question.

CRA administered two surveys. One went to workers in the Fredericksburg, Va., region about 60 miles south of Washington, D.C., who commute north to the District and other areas inside the Beltway. A second survey was directed at commuters who reside in Prince William and southern Fairfax Counties and commute to Washington and the close-in suburbs.

Nearly 1,400 commuters responded to the two surveys. The demographics of the survey respondents represented the overall demographics of the well-educated, professional regional workforce.

Perhaps not surprisingly for those who have endured lengthy commutes, 83 percent of workers who commute from Prince William and Fairfax Counties to Washington or the inner suburbs would be willing to consider a job in the Fredericksburg region. Most of these respondents indicated a willingness to take a salary cut in exchange for a shorter commute. Those commuters who live in Fredericksburg and have a commute in excess of one hour each way said they would be willing to forgo a significant amount of salary in exchange for a shorter commute to work. Sixty-two percent indicated they would be willing to reduce their annual salary by $5,000 or more for a 30-minute shorter commute.

So, why don’t more people live and work in Fredericksburg? In fact, many Northern Virginians are moving to the Fredericksburg region — not for jobs, but in search of affordable housing. The Fredericksburg region’s population is growing rapidly. Recent data from the Internal Revenue Service show a significant portion of the population growth coming from people moving from Northern Virginia to the Fredericksburg area, many who still hold jobs in the Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., area but cannot afford to continue to live near their jobs.

Lisa Fowler, director of the new Office for Housing Policy Research housed within CRA, says most people do not account for the full cost of housing, which includes both housing and transportation. The cost of housing in the closer-in neighborhoods of Northern Virginia has become out of reach for many families.

The average household income of migrants to Northern Virginia from in state is about $56,000. Households moving into the region from out of state have average incomes of about $63,000. These new residents can afford a home priced at approximately $300,000 if one assumes a 6.5 percent interest rate and $20,000 available for closing costs. However, as of August 2007, less than 20 percent of homes for sale in Northern Virginia were listed at $300,000 or less, according to the Metropolitan Regional Information System, an organization that tracks real estate transactions in the region. Homes are less expensive further out. For example, nearly 54 percent of homes in Warren County were listed for $300,000 or less.

The cost of housing is not the only consideration. It is estimated that increasing one’s commute by 30 miles per day (15 miles each way) can cost a household an extra $5,000 to $6,000 or more per year. Over time, the money saved by purchasing a cheaper home will be eroded by additional commuting expenses. The problem is exasperated by gas prices approaching $3 a gallon once again.

Recognizing the economic pressures families are feeling, many jurisdictions in the region are trying to develop policies to make housing more affordable so that workers will be able to live and work in the same county or city.

CRA recently completed a study for Fairfax County to forecast the type of housing needed to support the county’s projected job growth. Much of the needed housing is so-called workforce housing — that is, housing that is affordable to working households earning about the average county income. In their report, CRA finds that Fairfax County is at risk of losing its competitive advantage if it does not plan for sufficient housing affordable to households from the entire spectrum of the workforce.

Back in Fredericksburg, economic development staff intend to use the results from CRA’s 2006 study to attract new businesses or encourage new businesses to expand in the Fredericksburg region. Employers could benefit from a growing and well-educated workforce — and pay them a bit less than if they were located in the closer-in suburbs —and the commutes for some workers in the region could be less harrowing.

This article originally appeared in Fall 2007 Policy Impact.

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