Delaware commuters go the distance

BY KEN MAMMARELLA
Special to Delaware Business Times

While traffic jams on I-95 and Del. 1 might feel like they last forever, the average commute in Delaware is only about 26 minutes. For some extreme commuters, however, that’s just the beginning.

About 9 percent of Delaware’s 430,000 workers have commutes that top an hour, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A 50-mile journey is considered “long-distance,” and a 90-minute one-way journey is considered “extreme.” Those who endure both are designated “mega commuters.”

About 13,000 New Castle County residents have commutes that hit at least three counties, according to Dan Blevins, principal planner for the Wilmington Area Planning Council, who analyzed the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.

About 8,500 workers drive to jobs in New Castle County from their homes in Kent and Sussex counties or from surrounding states.

The majority of mega commuters depend on motor vehicles, but 248 workers in New Castle County take Amtrak to Manhattan, and 231 to Washington, D.C., according to Blevins’ analysis. Another 79 residents who rely on rail go beyond Amtrak to jobs in Brooklyn, New York City; Arlington, Virginia; and Montgomery County, Maryland.

One of Delaware’s mega commuters is Randy Roberts, who was interviewed during his 100-mile, 135-minute drive home. He’s a vice president at JPMorgan Chase in downtown Wilmington. Raised in New Castle County, he moved to Millsboro after the death of his mother in 2011.

“I bought a place in Sussex County and decided to commute,” Roberts said. “It’s a different world. Slower, much quieter. Less crime and traffic, except for the summer. A refreshing change of pace.”

Roberts gets up at 3 a.m. and is quickly on the road. He starts the return trip around 2 p.m. “I have no intention of changing the commute,” he said. “With XM radio, it doesn’t seem that long.”

The Sussex County resident maintains another tie with New Castle County: He’s a life member of the Holloway Terrace Volunteer Fire Company, where he’s volunteered for 34 years and gives at least 100 hours a year. “My heart is with Holloway Terrace.”

Not everyone is down for the long haul.

R.J. Townsend, a Newark software developer, commuted to Washington for about eight years, using trains and Priceline – discounted lodging to ease the hassle. “Either way, I didn’t like it,” he said.

He considered the drastic step of buying an RV and parking it at a campsite near his office, but he found another way to avoid his $1,800 commuting bill: His request to work from home was approved in July.

Since 2004, Betsy Chapin has commuted 43.4 miles each way from her North Wilmington home to Gwynedd Mercy University, in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania, where she is an associate English professor and chair of the liberal arts division.

“I stayed in Wilmington because my family and history is here,” said the Wilmington native, adding that she was also caring for her mother through 2012. “I lived up there for three months. I was unhappy, and so was she. So I said ‘I’ll just do the drive.’ I’ve never regretted it.”

She concluded that the best alternatives – U.S. 202 or transferring between two trains – took a solid two hours each.

She does some work online, so she doesn’t have to commute daily. She sticks to the Blue Route and drives mostly during the day. “At best, it’s an hour. With traffic, an hour and a half. Some days, two. Th e worst was on Jan. 19, 2005, when it had just started snowing, and it took me four.”

Graphic from a WILMAPCO report tracks interstate movement of Delaware commuters

A Newark resident, Megan Brown recently changed jobs and ended up exchanging one long commute for another that fluctuates from half the time to 15 minutes longer.

She regularly took an hour to drive 30 miles to her job as a special-ed teacher in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Her new commute to Thomas Edison Charter School on Wilmington’s East Side is just 16 miles, but the drive fluctuates between 25 and 75 minutes, depending on congestion and accidents.

“I-95 is the best choice, but GPS might take me to [U.S.] 13, which is unbearable with all those lights. Th e only other way is [Del.] 9, which is horrible,” she said. “I hate sitting in traffic.”

Rebecca Gallatin takes 40 minutes to two hours to go between her home in Media, Pennsylvania, to her job as a trust officer for RBC Trust Co. in Pike Creek. She’s had this commute for four years, and she has it down to a science, sort of.

The morning drive starts on the Blue Route and includes I-95 and Del. 141, but her evening route ends with Pa. 452 and back roads, because “that part of the Blue Route is horrible then.”

Still, she has an understanding boss and sympathetic co-workers. “Th e unpredictability of how long it takes is the worst part,” she said.

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