The New York Times

 

 
May 21, 2006
 

Bigger Houses, Longer Commutes

By ELSA BRENNER
ON weekdays, Julie Kroloff sets the coffee maker for 5:45 a.m., then speeds through her kitchen in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., and grabs a cup to fortify herself for the long drive ahead. If Ms. Kroloff, a self-employed consultant, is on time, she backs out of the garage just before 6 and makes the trip from Dutchess County to her office in Midtown Manhattan in just under two hours. If traffic is heavy, Ms. Kroloff's 54-mile commute can take two and a half hours or more.

About the same time, in Burlington, N.J., south of Trenton, Ronny Byrd, a vault custodian for the Bank of New York, boards a bus bound for Wall Street. If the New Jersey Turnpike and the Holland Tunnel are not backed up, Mr. Byrd will reach his destination in two hours.

In Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Atul Ramayani, a computer analyst, boards Metro-North's increasingly crowded 7:10 express bound for Grand Central Terminal. In all, Mr. Ramayani's commute takes close to two hours, including the 20-minute drive to the station and a 10-minute walk from Grand Central before he clocks in for the day.

Priced out of an increasingly expensive real estate market in close-in areas like Westchester, Bergen and Nassau Counties, some workers are pushing their commutes up to the two-hour mark, and even beyond.

It is the price they are willing to pay to own the home of their dreams, said Alan E. Pisarski, the author of a series of books titled "Commuting in America" (the third is being published by the National Academy of Sciences' Transportation Research Board).

"In essence, what this group of commuters is doing," Mr. Pisarski explained, "is contributing to their house payment with travel time."

Or as Mr. Byrd, who used to live in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn with his wife, Valerie, and their four children, said, "We never could have afforded a home big enough for all of us that was closer to New York." In September, the couple bought a six-bedroom house in Burlington, 75 miles south of Midtown, for $250,000.

With the cost of residential real estate rising sharply in recent years, the geographical boundaries of the New York metropolitan area are being redrawn. Bulldozers are clearing farmland once considered too far away for a commute to Manhattan, real estate agencies are opening offices in outlying areas, and elected officials in once-rural communities are being pressured to contain the encroaching sprawl.

Meanwhile, public transportation providers like Metro-North are adding service earlier in the morning and in the evening to accommodate their riders' changing needs. And many of those riders are changing their routines, optimizing the increased travel time to and from work by opening their laptops and BlackBerries en route.

"They're charging their batteries from the outlets that were meant for vacuum cleaners and our polishing equipment," said Dan Brucker, a Metro-North spokesman.

Other commuters like Ms. Kroloff who rely on their cars for the long haul to work say that the drive gives them a chance to be alone and to gather their thoughts. "I can be in my own world without anyone bothering me," she said. "Sometimes when I'm driving, I just let my mind wander. Sometimes, I listen to music. I can create my own space in the car, and that helps me prepare for the day ahead."

She and her daughter, Rita, 8, and her son, Steven, 7, moved into a new five-bedroom, five-bath house last fall. It cost around $750,000.

According to the latest statistics from the Census Bureau, the migration outward and the trend toward longer commutes to New York City intensified during the 1990's. In Dutchess County, for example, the number of people who commuted to the city rose 46 percent in that decade, to 5,798 from 3,975.

In New Jersey, the number of people commuting from Warren County, due west of Manhattan at the Pennsylvania border, was up 39 percent, rising from 539 in 1990 to 748 in 2000.

In New Haven County in Connecticut, the increase was 25 percent, from 1,797 to 2,243.

But in Suffolk County, the eastern part of Long Island, the numbers increased by only 2 percent, rising to 80,003 from 78,291 in 1990.

Nassau County to the west and Westchester County to the north are still home to the largest numbers of New York City commuters 197,864 in Nassau and 117,839 in Westchester although their numbers dropped, by less than 2 percent, in the decade.

The Census Bureau has not updated its 2000 figures. But real estate offices and rail and bus lines report that the residential real estate market has been in high gear north and west of Westchester, in southern New Jersey and near Philadelphia.

It is a trend that Mark S. Jaffe, the president of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, calls worrisome. "If people have to travel so far, how can they still be alert and productive on the job?" he said. "Very few people want to commute long distances, but the lack of affordable housing closer in forces them to do that."

To the North

Interstate 84, which crosses southern Dutchess County just above the Putnam County line, used to be considered the boundary for most commuters to New York, said William J. Lavery, a regional vice president in Houlihan Lawrence's Dutchess County offices. But that is no longer the case.

"Suddenly, the gates have opened up, and half a dozen new subdivisions are going in," he said.

Clearly, the migration to Dutchess is being fueled by the high cost of housing to the south. In Westchester at the end of 2005, the median price for a single-family house was $640,000, according to the Westchester County Board of Realtors. By comparison, it was $342,500 in Dutchess.

The areas of highest growth in Dutchess, Mr. Lavery said, include Pawling, East Fishkill, Beekman, Uniondale and LaGrange, towns in the southern part of the county.

Orange County, northwest of Westchester on the other side of the Hudson River, has also become an alternative for prospective homeowners, among them police officers and firefighters who have been priced out of markets closer to Manhattan, said Greg Rand, the managing partner in Prudential Rand Realty, which has offices in Westchester, Putnam, Rockland and Orange Counties. "Seven years ago," Mr. Rand said, "Orange was just a rural upstate county, not a bedroom community for New York City. But then people saw what they could buy in Orange for the money, and they changed their thinking." The median price in Orange at the end of 2005 was $320,000.

Rob Parahus, a group president of Toll Brothers, the construction company active in 21 states, has six new developments in Dutchess County, including Arlington Hunt in Poughkeepsie where Mr. Ramayani has bought a house, and another development in New Paltz in Ulster County. Prices range from the high $300,000's to the mid-$700,000's. "Until fairly recently these locations wouldn't support this kind of development," Mr. Parahus said.

Mr. Parahus said zoning boards were welcoming to builders in rural areas. But Joan A. Pagones, the supervisor of the Town of Fishkill, which covers 32 square miles in southwestern Dutchess, had a somewhat different view. She said elected officials were taking a tough, although not unfriendly, stance on development.

"My first question to a developer is 'How can you make our town better?' " Ms. Pagones said. " 'Will you provide sewer and water, a fire truck, a snowplow?' "

"We're not afraid of growth," she added, "but we have to manage it smartly."

Toll Brothers recently gained approval to build in the town only after it agreed to grant 32 acres to the Wappingers Central School District.

In response to the new developments, Metro-North Railroad expanded its train service in April, adding express runs on its Hudson, Harlem and New Haven Lines. From Poughkeepsie, for example, a train now leaves at 4:15 a.m. and arrives at Grand Central at 5:50. And New Haven now has a train departing at 5:12 a.m., arriving in Manhattan at 6:47. Ridership on the northern part of Metro-North's Hudson Line, from Croton-on-Hudson to Poughkeepsie, increased 85 percent from 1990 to 2005, from 2.4 million a year to 4.5 million annually. On the Harlem Line between Dover Plains and Wassaic in Dutchess County, ridership was up 274 percent from 1990 to 2005, rising from 140,900 to 526,000. On the New Haven Line, the increase was 34 percent, from 9.4 million to 12.7 million.

In order to serve the increasing numbers of commuters from Orange County, which used to be considered "never-never land," Mr. Brucker, the Metro-North spokesman, said, the railroad has contracted with New York Waterways for 10-minute ferry service across the Hudson from Newburgh to Beacon, and back again in the evening. Riders now number 280 a day, up from 200 when service began in January.

Beacon, on the Harlem Line, is one of the fastest-growing stations in the Metro-North system, Mr. Brucker said, in large part reflecting the increasing numbers of people commuting from Orange. Beacon now has 1,330 customers a day, he said, 45 percent from Orange, and ridership to Manhattan is up 50 percent from five years ago. The first ferry leaves Newburgh at 5:40 on weekday mornings; in Beacon, passengers can connect with a southbound train and arrive at Grand Central at 7:17 a.m.

Commuters are not only traveling farther, but they are also getting to work earlier, Mr. Brucker said. "The worldwide economy means that people have to interact with workers in other countries at different times of day," he said.

And instead of reading or sleeping, commuters are often working en route. Mr. Ramayani, for example, said he extends the workday by using his laptop on the train ride from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central and back again at night.

To the South

Reports of the growth in the number of people commuting from the outer reaches of New Jersey and from Philadelphia are mostly anecdotal there seem to be few statistics to support what real estate agents and builders are calling a trend.

Orleans Homebuilders in Bensalem, Pa., is expanding its reach into New Jersey, in Monmouth, Middlesex, Hunterdon and Burlington Counties, said Gary Schaal, the executive vice president for sales and marketing. In Burlington County alone, he said, the company has six new residential developments. Among them are Covington Manor, where 4,200-square-foot homes with four bedrooms and three-car garages on one-acre lots are selling in the low $700,000's.

Mr. Schaal could not say how many of his buyers were commuting to New York on the buses that run to the Port Authority terminal or by train from Trenton.

Mr. Byrd is typical of some of the buyers from New York City who are acquiring older houses in Burlington, said Anna DeCristofaro, a sales associate at Coldwell Banker Elite. "We're seeing more and more of this," she said. "They buy a place and then fix it up over time as they can afford to."

But transportation companies among them Greyhound Lines reported that ridership has not increased enough to justify added service, said Anna Folmnsbee, a spokeswoman.

Glenn Petsch, the manager of Coldwell Banker Elite's Cherry Hill office, described the movement outward as the beginning of a ripple effect. "House prices are causing the move south and west," he said, "but it's not a huge onrush."

Michael Galdi, an agent for Century 21 Advantage Gold in Philadelphia, is feeling some of that ripple. Commuters are buying row houses and multifamily houses in the Northwood and Castor Gardens sections of the city. From there, they can take elevated trains downtown, where they can change to Amtrak trains headed for Manhattan, or they can drive to work.

But Mr. Galdi noted that as the residential real estate market slows, interest in the Philadelphia neighborhoods appears to be diminishing as well, and prices, which reached the mid-$100,000's for attached houses last year, are coming down.