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Erik Burgess, Published March 08 2013

Mega-commuters put on the miles, but most local drivers’ trips shorter than national average

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MOORHEAD - Perry Werner has been a desk jockey here for the past 20 years, but in his heart he’s a road warrior. The 65-year-old librarian at Minnesota State Community and Technical College commutes 120 miles every day to and from his home in Fergus Falls. He’s done it for nearly 20 years.

It means waking up an hour earlier and always getting home late, enduring winter storms, traffic clogs and skyrocketing gas prices. It can all fray the nerves, but Werner said he actually relishes the trip.

“If you enjoy looking at the country, then you’re fine,” he said. “If you hated the country then you’d be in trouble, because there’s a lot of great country between here and Fergus Falls.”

Across the nation, some deal with even longer daily commutes than Werner.

A 2011 study by the U.S. Census Bureau released this week shows there are 600,000 full-time workers nationwide who “mega-commute” at least 90 minutes and 50 miles to work each day. The data was compiled in the bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey.

Nationally, the average one-way daily commute for workers is 25.5 minutes, the survey states.

Seventeen of 25 ZIP codes in Cass County reported commutes shorter than the national average, according to a New York City public radio station graphic using census data to break up commutes per ZIP code.

Full-time workers in the Fargo ZIP codes of 58102 and 58103 take 15.5 minutes and 13.9 minutes, respectively, to get to work.

Commutes in six of the 11 Clay County ZIP codes are at or shorter than the national average. Those in Moorhead’s 56560 and Dilworth’s 56529 are 15.8 minutes and 17.3 minutes, respectively.

“I think our commute times are pretty good,” said Jeremy Gorden, a traffic engineer in Fargo. “You can basically get anywhere in town in 10 to 15 minutes.”

Daily one-way commutes in Grand Forks/East Grand Forks, Minn., ZIP codes span 8 to 16 minutes. Those in Bismarck/Mandan are a bit longer, between 16 to 19 minutes.

Commutes in Minneapolis/St. Paul are largely below average in the 20-minute range, but the commutes grow to as long as 35 minutes in the suburbs, the study shows.

F-M draws commuters

While commute times in Fargo-Moorhead are relatively low, the map of the census data shows travel times become longer as you move to the surrounding rural communities.

Respondents in the Kindred, N.D., ZIP code, 58051, reported an average commute of nearly 38 minutes, with a plus or minus 8.4-minute margin of error. Those in the Hawley, Minn., ZIP code, 56549, reported 26.2-minute commutes, plus or minus 1.5 minutes. Comstock, Minn., reported a 32.2 minute commute, with a 9.6 minute margin of error.

For the F-M Metropolitan Council of Governments, the census data offer proof that the number of commuters from the rural communities into the metro area is important, said Wade Kline, the group’s executive director.

“Fargo-Moorhead is drawing in commuters,” he said. “They’re using the interstates. They’re using the state highways.”

The 2011 ACS survey also shows that a relatively high percentage of North Dakota workers – 11.6 percent – live in a different state.

The largest share of those, 29,449 workers, are Minnesota residents commuting to their full-time jobs in North Dakota. An estimated 11,897 people who live in North Dakota commute to work in Minnesota.

Kelsey Evavold has endured the “necessary evil” of commuting to her job at TMI Hospitality in Fargo for the past six months. She and her husband grew up in Fergus Falls and own a home there now, but there are fewer jobs in her hometown.

“I’m also aware of the opportunities in (the F-M area), but I like the small-town feel of the place where I live,” she said. “You can’t have both in most cases. You have to take what you can, and that’s commuting.”

As a regional hub, the city of Fargo has worked in the past 10 years to alleviate congestion at interchanges and in commercial sectors by widening major corridors such as 45th Street, 13th Avenue South and Main Avenue into six lanes, Gorden said.

The city also works on optimizing signal timing during peak traffic hours to keep traffic moving smoothly, he said.

“Right at 5 o’clock, at times it gets to be a little bit busy, but I think it’s been pretty consistent over the years,” Gorden said.

In order to do a better job of preparing for workers commuting from outlying rural communities, MetroCOG’s policy board decided late last year to expand its area of study to include Casselton, Kindred and Oxbow, N.D., and Comstock, Hawley and Barnesville, Minn.

MetroCOG’s purview currently ends at Argusville and Horace, N.D., to the north and south, and Mapleton, N.D., and Glyndon, Minn., to the west and east. The proposed expansion still has to be approved by departments of transportation in both states.

“We want to make sure that we’re able to look at, plan for, project and understand some of these exurban commuting trends because that’s exactly where these people are coming (from),” Kline said.

Commuting way of life

Fargo-Moorhead is home to about 648 mega-commuters, or those who travel at least 90 miles and 60 minutes one way, ACS data from 2006 to 2010 shows. That’s about 1 percent of the workforce, with a margin of error of plus or minus 140 workers.

Nationwide, mega-commuters are more likely to be married, older males who leave for work before 6 a.m. and have a spouse who does not work, the Census Bureau says.

The 2011 survey also looked at “long commutes,” which are one-way trips of 60 minutes or longer. Nationwide, 8.1 percent of those who do not work at home have long commutes.

An estimated 4.5 percent of workers living in North Dakota, or 15,743 people, and 5.3 percent of workers living in Minnesota, or 135,560 people, endure long commutes.

The American Community Survey is conducted in every county across the nation. It had a sample size of 3.3 million addresses across the U.S. and Puerto Rico in 2011. The ZIP code data contains varying margins of error.

Werner, the MSCTC librarian, lives in Fergus Falls because his wife has a job there and they “had to pick someplace to live.” It came down to who was more willing to drive each day, he said.

His daily trip to Moorhead clocks in at 62 miles and just longer than 60 minutes, depending on traffic.

Occasionally, he commutes to the MSCTC campuses in Wadena and Detroit Lakes, which are also lengthy trips.

In his 20 years as librarian here, he’s commuted roughly 8,720 total hours. That’s 40 hours shy of one full year on the road.

“That sounds terrible,” he said, having never added the hours all up before. “You spread it out over 20 years, and it doesn’t feel like a lot.”

Still, he said he’s had no accidents and no speeding tickets, joking that now he may have jinxed his good luck.

“I’ve gotten used to driving, and that’s just the way life is,” he said. “It’s been a good 20 years riding on that road.”


For the full map: http://tinyurl.com/ce86hex.

Results of the study at www.census.gov.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518