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Southern Maryland residents who commute long distances to work are tackling challenges to being involved with their families, communities and local government.

Take for example Teresa Elder of Dentsville.

Elder takes the 907 Maryland Transit Administration commuter bus from the La Plata park and ride to Washington, D.C., to work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On a given day, she might work 8 1/2 hours but be away from home for up to 13 hours due to her commute.

The time spent takes Elder away from watching her 11-year-old daughter play softball. Elder said she can’t get involved with her daughter’s school, either.

Sometimes Elder takes the subway at the Branch Avenue Metro station into the city because she can “more accurately gauge [her] time” to work usually about an hour and a half if she takes the train. She prefers the train because of the set commute time, but said she has to deal with some children on the Metro who act rude and use foul language.

Residents in Southern Maryland generally have long commutes compared with other areas.

In 2009, Charles County residents had the highest mean commute time in the nation at 43.2 minutes each way, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Calvert County residents were not far behind, generating a mean commute time of 39 minutes.

Even in St. Mary’s County, where close to 75 percent of the civilian labor force works inside the county, the county’s mean commute time in 2009 was 29.4 minutes. Maryland residents had an average commute time of 31.3 minutes in 2009. Nationwide, the average commute was 25.1 minutes.

Becky Smith of Lusby said her commutes to her work in Arlington, Va., are 2 1/2 hours each way. Smith first rides the 902 commuter bus from the St. Leonard park and ride to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station, and then takes the subway to Arlington.

Smith said she doesn’t have time to get involved in the community because she gets home around 7 p.m. each day. However, Smith said she does not have to worry about taking care of young children, since both of her children are grown. Her husband is retired, and she plans to retire soon as well. Smith said she hopes to volunteer with a local hospital or nursing home when she retires.

Jake Leitch, who drives from Huntingtown to Patuxent River Naval Air Station, has a 6 a.m.-to-3:30 p.m. schedule that keeps him from running into traffic on the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge in Solomons. When he drives 50 minutes to an hour to work, it is so early that the traffic lights near the bridge are flashing yellow.

Leitch said he knows people who have a schedule of 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. who end up running into traffic on Route 235 on their way home. In fact, one of Leitch’s friends who used to commute with him moved across the bridge to St. Mary’s County due to the long commute.

Community groups echo commuters' frustrations.

“Most of the meetings must occur in the evenings because most parents and other adult volunteers work during the day,” said Jessica S. B. Andritz, the Boy Scouts of America Zekiah District chairwoman. She's an attorney with Andrews, Bongar, Starkey & Clagett in Waldorf.

"However, as a general rule, our meetings don’t begin until 7:30 p.m. because most commute out of the county [to Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia] and cannot get back into the county and attend a meeting much before 7:30 p.m. This serves as a barrier for participation in regular meetings because most volunteers won’t get home for dinner until 9 or 9:30 p.m., which makes the workday too long,” she said.

Commuting, not community

Local government leaders are well aware of the commuting struggles the region’s residents confront as well as the variables residents weigh in making a decision to make long commutes.

Charles County commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) said the commissioners usually try to schedule public forums and public hearings in the evenings to accomodate the county’s citizens.

Calvert County commissioners’ President Susan Shaw (R) said that between 58 and 60 percent of the county’s residents commute to work outside of Calvert County half to the north and half via the Benedict and Thomas Johnson bridges.

Calvert County Commissioner Evan Slaughenhoupt (R) said he is familiar with the struggles of commuters in the region as he commutes to his other job in Columbia.

“Some residents make the long commute to D.C. and that is challenging for them given the cost of fuel these days,” said St. Mary’s County commissioners’ President Jack Russell (D).

Going the distance

There are a few reasons for the long commute times for Southern Maryland residents. The prospect of high-paying jobs in the District leads many to make longer commutes.

“If you want to make any money, you have to go to D.C.,” Elder said.

Jobs in the District have higher salaries than surrounding areas in the region, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. May 2010 occupational and wage estimates state that jobs in the District have an annual mean income of $73,440, while St. Mary’s County jobs have an annual mean income of $60,570 and the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria metropolitan division, which includes Charles and Calvert counties, has an annual mean income of $61,530.

Even when considering median hourly income, which is less affected by outlying salaries, D.C. jobs offer more income: $28.17 per hour compared with $24.69 per hour in St. Mary’s County and $22.97 in the D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria metropolitan division.

Smith said she has looked at jobs at Patuxent River and found that the grade and pay for work is higher in the District.

Yet earning a higher salary is not the only reason residents of Southern Maryland commute long distances. Some simply love living in the region.

Ernie Wallace, a resident of La Plata who used to commute an hour and a half to Bethesda every day, said, “In Charles County, there’s boating, hunting, fishing everything you might want to do is in Charles County except good jobs.”

Slaughenhoupt said, “Many people who commute outside of Calvert County moved to Calvert County while having a job outside the county. People have been moving to Calvert because of the quality of life and to get away from congestion” where they used to live.

Yet despite residents’ long commutes, both Shaw and Slaughenhoupt said that residents are willing to make the trade-off for the “Calvert County lifestyle.”

Leitch said that even though his commute is long, his schedule allows him to come back home during the summer and still have time to fish on the Patuxent River near his home. Leitch stores a 16-foot skiff at a pier off Holland Cliff Road. He’s in the process of deciding a name for his boat. During the fall, Leitch said he can go hunting every day after he arrives home at 4:30 p.m.

Shaw said the county is a community with a small-town feel where residents can be safe and be involved in nature.

Slaughenhoupt added that the county has relatively low taxes and crime rates.

Smith praised the county’s country living with less traffic and more trees and birds. Smith said the lifestyle in Calvert County is “a better lifestyle.”

Smith and her husband moved from Upper Marlboro three or four years ago.

“There’s a lot the area had to offer to us,” Smith said.

St. Mary’s County has the luxury of Patuxent River Naval Air Station, whose Navy and contractor workforce number about 22,000 civilians. Two-thirds of those people are residents of the county, according to the county’s comprehensive plan.

Russell said that Pax River and surrounding defense contractors provide about 80 percent of the county’s income. He said the Navy base provides a lot of job opportunties, but the county has additional opportunities it offers, including a laid-back lifestyle and shorter distances from work.

“We may be lacking in nightlife and entertainment found in cities, but we make up for it in different places,” like water sports, he said.

Ease their pain

In terms of options to reduce commute times or make commuting easier, many options have been proposed. A long-term option is to use a CSX rail line in Charles County as a commuter rail link to the District.

Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) is spearheading an effort to bring MARC transit to Charles County along the CSX line that runs through the county. Robinson said regional train services such as MARC and Amtrak use freight lines in the greater D.C. area.

Robinson said that he recently saw how a station in Secaucus, N.J., functions as a transfer station in the New York regional transit system. Robinson reasoned that Bowie could become a regional transfer station that provides rail connection not only to Union Station in the District but also to Baltimore.

Robinson said the commissioners in Charles are scheduling meetings with leaders in Prince George’s County to help to move the proposal for regional rail forward.

“I’ve gotten a lot of positive reaction to my proposal. The good thing about the MARC proposal is that it uses previous infrastructure,” Robinson said.

Commuters interviewed also had positive reaction to the commuter rail proposal.

“I know people who would take advantage of that,” Elder said.

Larry Fisher, who lives in Bel Alton, said commuter buses do not go by his workplace at Buzzard Point, but a commuter rail line linked up to the Metro would provide direct access to his work.

Another option is directing more high-paying jobs to Southern Maryland.

Kelly said the county is working on bringing high-paying jobs to the area through the county’s economic development department. Making schools great is also a top priority, Kelly said, as companies with high-paying jobs are most likely to commit to areas with quality education.

Slaughenhoupt said that there is room for expansion at the College of Southern Maryland’s Prince Frederick campus and at the Patuxent Business Park and noted the importance of the county’s two power plants to employment Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant and Dominion Cove Point Liquid Natural Gas Plant.

Another solution is telecommuting.

Kelly Scott of Clements said the federal government is instituting a program called Flexiplace, where federal workers can work from home using telecommunication software. Scott said she could work once a week from home under the program. She said the program would help her to have time to make dinner at night.

Another option is adding more park-and-ride locations. Shaw said that ever since she has come into office, she has heard Calvert County residents want more MTA park-and-ride sites.

On June 6, MTA was to open a renovated Prince Frederick park and ride off Fairground Road near Calvert High School that would double the amount of parking spaces to 400 and make the park and ride compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, MTA spokesman John Wesley said.

Slaughenhoupt said one of the top transportation priorities for Calvert County is resolving how to renovate the Johnson bridge. Slaughenhoupt said the bridge gets backed up easily if a car breaks down on the bridge. The bridge also has been shut down in the past due to cracks observed in the bridge structure.

“The need for more lanes is a clear indication of growth to the area,” Slaughenhoupt said. He added that Solomons residents have told him that they are opposed to a second two-lane span south of the existing bridge because of “aesthetics.”

Russell said upgrades to the bridge are “a long ways away,” but the commissioners are concerned about dealing with traffic around the bridge.

Russell said that because the state’s transportation trust fund and highway user taxes have been diverted to cover gaps in other state budget accounts, it has been difficult to find funding to fix roads that could alleviate traffic.

pwarner@somdnews.com