Ties to Far-Flung Homes Drive Commuters to Great Lengths

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The mountains -- Blue Ridge to the east, Massanutten to the west -- loom over Luray, Va., but their outlines are barely visible in the dark as the men gather in the park-and-ride at 3:50 a.m. The day's driver gets behind the wheel of the van, a nine-year-old Dodge, seven others pile in behind him, and by 4 they're headed up Route 340, the moon still a sharp white wedge and 77 miles of road ahead.

"I don't even know if the deer get up this early," says Jay Lang, peering into the black from the van's middle row.

It has come to this in the Washington region, where an imbalance of housing and jobs produces commutes that stagger the imagination and confound the biological clock: Every weekday, seven vans set off from Luray and six other far-flung locations with 55 passengers bound for a single workplace: the physical plant shop at George Mason University in Fairfax. The college looks so far afield for carpenters and electricians that it has started letting workers use campus vans for the commute.

The 10-seater vans converge from Front Royal, Winchester and Warrenton to the west, Fredericksburg to the south and Fort Washington and Indian Head to the east. The Luray crowd drives the farthest, from the far side of Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah cavern country -- 90 minutes if the weather and traffic cooperate, double that if they don't. Just getting to the park-and-ride means a 25-mile drive for one of the workers, who wakes up at 2:45 a.m. to make it.

George Mason's predawn van pools may seem like just another example of the extreme commutes in a region where roads are illuminated with brake lights well before sunbeams, but they challenge the assumptions behind the trend. The conventional explanation is that people are moving farther out for tranquility and more affordable homes and paying for them with a long commute.

The Luray riders serve as a reminder that there is another dynamic. They are not exurban wanderers but people with lives deeply rooted in towns far away who would have nothing to do with the Washington area if not for this: It's the only place they can find work.

For these workers, the area's boom is a lifesaver, providing jobs at, for example, an expanding university such as George Mason. But there's a steep cost, in the form of a daily schedule that could put a dairy farmer to shame.

"You never really get used to it," says George Mason's carpentry shop supervisor, Sam Dean, who drives the 25 miles from Elkton to meet the van in Luray. "But you go where the money is."

In this case, the goal is a salary of about $33,000 for most of the van's riders, who are all in their thirties and whose work includes patching dorm walls kicked in by drunk students and building oak newspaper racks for the student union. The pay is half of what Fairfax officials report as the minimum needed for a family to get by in the county, but university officials say that is all George Mason can afford.

Providing the vans, along with gas money, is a way to ease the burden, university officials say. Other employers in the area assist workers who have long commutes. The Montgomery County school system, for example, provides bus drivers living in West Virginia with a bus that shuttles them to the school bus depot in Shady Grove. But few have gone to such lengths as George Mason, which is considering adding more vans to the effort.

"The state doesn't pay that well, and this is one way for us to get skilled people who live in the more rural areas to come to work for us," said Larry Spaine, director of the university's physical plant. "They're top-of-the-line guys, and they're dependable. When we get a snow day, they come down from the mountain to help us push the snow."

The pay at George Mason is lower than what six of the men from the Luray van made at their previous jobs, working the presses at a printing plant in Luray. But the plant was shuttered when the company was sold in 2003, leaving 125 workers jobless. That followed the closure of two local jeans factories that employed 600, including one of the van's riders.

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