Commuting: Bad for Transportation Planners, Bad for Our Pocketbooks
For many people, commuting to work every day from 20 or more miles away is simply a fact of life. Many do it to afford a home that would be otherwise unaffordable where they work. Some simply get a better deal on their home by looking at outlying areas. Some want to live in a specific area without changing jobs. I have never quite understood this mentality and when you crunch the numbers, it becomes very expensive to buy the cheap house farther from work than to pony up a little more for a house that's much closer.
As the commuter mentality grips the Wastach Front, our highways are becoming congested, our mass transit packed to the brim, and our transportation outlays larger than we could hope to raise through modest tax increases. The common projection is that we will have over $16.5 billion dollars in unfulfilled transit needs by 2030, a cost we simply cannot bear in a state of 2.5 million people. A large part of the transportation need is being fueled by those who buy inexpensive houses in Lehi, Magna, and other suburbs and then drive to downtown Salt Lake City to work. This has created a traffic logjam of epic proportions as our population grows without new freeway and rail construction.
The solution to this is something that nobody wants to hear. No, I'm not talking tax increases for more light and commuter rail lines. I'm not even considering the public/private partership for a toll road on the west side of Salt Lake County. No, I'm talking about a fundamental change in the way we view commuting and transportation.
The root of the problem is that too many of us live too far from where we work. One of the main reasons behind this is the cost of homes. A modest 4-bedroom home near the downtown Salt Lake area can run over $230,000 without much trouble at all. A similar home in, say, Lehi, runs under $180,000. In addition to saving over $50,000, it will also likely be a newer home with less maintenance. Once you factor in commuting, however, just how much if anything are you really saving?
To afford a $180,000 home, you need to be earning about $30 an hour to qualify for the mortgage. Let's conservatively say you spend an extra 45 minutes each way commuting to and from work. (Yes, I know that's idealism, but let's try and assume the best.) That's going to total up to a whopping 7.5 hours a week that you've spent commuting worth about $225 a week. Presuming you can squeeze about 25 miles a gallon from your car, you'd manage to spend around $30 a week on extra gas plus the maintenance. Now you're spending an extra $275 a week on your driving or around $14,300 annually. Suddenly that $50,000 you saved on your house is eaten up in less than four years through your commuting costs. This doesn't even factor in all of the increased taxes you're going to be paying in that new area for upgraded highways, surface roads, schools, rail… it'll add up very quickly.
Sadly, many homebuyers don't sit down and figure out just how much commuting is really costing them. Even worse, environmentalists are just starting to grasp selling their ideas by turning it into terms of their pocketbooks and aren't making this case to the public. The state seems to have not realized this as a substantial component of transportation policy, instead trying to fill the insurmountable gap of nearly $8,000 per resident in the transportation budget.
To encourage people to live near where they work and reduce our transportation needs, we may need to give them more incentives. Maybe we need impact fees on new homes that pay for their increased infrastructure costs, thus making existing homes near downtown more appealing. Perhaps the answer is a tax credit for anyone living less than 5 miles from where they work. Another way could be incentives from the city rewarding those who live and work within the city limits in the form of urban renewal assistance.
Above all, the state must make sure people understand that they are cheating themselves out of tens of thousands of dollars by moving further and further out and make education a core component of transportation policy. We must develop infrastructure such as commuter rail to reduce road congestion and UTOPIA to encourage telecommuting. In short, our transportation policy needs to get smarter than the traditional methods of building more and bigger roads.