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COLUMN ONE : A Longer Road Now Takes Toll : Congestion and the search for affordable housing have created the 100-mile drive to work. Employers worry that it's hurting health and productivity.


Doug Watson was making good time on his morning commute. His bright red Subaru slipped its way like a speeding toboggan down the twisting mountain roads near his Lake Arrowhead home.

But after Watson descended into the San Bernardino flatlands, the brilliant Alpine sunshine gave way to a dishwater-colored haze and a traffic jam on the transition to southbound Interstate 215. "The pretty part is over," the 49-year-old Los Angeles police captain said.

He was right. Unexpected knots of traffic that early September day would stretch Watson's already lengthy drive to his downtown Los Angeles office--a 92-mile, nearly two-hour trip that would make even the most traffic-hardened Southern Californian wince.

Frustrated by big city tensions and high costs, growing numbers of people living in major U.S. metropolitan areas--and, in particular, Southern California--appear to be chasing more affordable housing and less congested confines on the suburban frontier. Already, according to a recent survey, nearly 10% of commuters in the Los Angeles area say their morning drive takes an hour or more. In fact, a small but hardy breed of marathon motorists, dubbed "super commuters," have emerged who drive 100 or more miles to work.

By and large, long-distance commuters would gladly switch jobs to work closer to their homes in rustic or newly developed areas. The average Los Angeles work commute--about 30 minutes--would be a dream come true.

But jobs--particularly higher-paying professional and skilled positions--are not as plentiful as cheap housing in the far-flung suburbs. And employers, for their part, have seen their ranks of long-distance commuters swell and have begun to worry about these workers' well-being and on-the-job performance.

Driving to work in Los Angeles and Orange counties from bedroom boom towns such as Lancaster in the high desert or Moreno Valley in Riverside County often means spending a minimum of two to three hours on the road a day, under ideal conditions. Congestion, accidents and bad weather can easily add an hour or two to normal drive times--putting long-distance commuters behind the wheel for nearly one-third of their waking hours.

Elsewhere, "There are people who are moving to places like the Poconos out in Pennsylvania and commuting through the state of New Jersey to get to New York," said Martin Wachs, a UCLA professor of urban planning.

The benefits of suburban living, however, may force motorists into stressful work commutes that take a toll on their personal health, family life and daily schedules.

"I would love to coach Little League with my kids, but it's too dark by the time I get home," said Norm Gookins, who leaves his Palmdale home at 5:30 a.m. and returns about 12 hours later from his job in El Segundo 75 miles away. "We still have the weekends. That's one thing that commuting does, it makes the weekends sacred."

Far-flung commuters dream about bullet trains between Lancaster and Los Angeles and eagerly await the creation of company van pools and car pools. But either by choice or circumstance, they continue to drive worn cars--packing away cookies to munch on and books-on-tape to pass the time--and endure daily journeys most people only make as weekend trips.

"I equate this drive to something like 'Road Warrior,' " said Steve Dreben of Del Mar, who drives 164 miles round-trip between his home and his job at McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach.

"I've seen railroad shacks burning up," Dreben said. "I've seen people who tried to change their tires get killed. I see the Border Patrol chasing people through the Marine base."

However, traffic congestion--not distance--is the most likely factor to drive endurance commuters up the wall and off the freeway.

"Sometimes I'm waiting to get on (the freeway) and my God it's 5:30 in the morning and we're waiting in line," said Jo Anne Alford, an executive secretary from the city of Orange who drivers her Mazda RX to work in El Segundo. "It's dark. I just look at the taillights in front of me."

Nearly an hour had passed since Watson had begun his morning commute when he whizzed by a sign along the eastbound San Bernardino Freeway that read "Los Angeles 48 Miles."

The fast lane was clear and Watson's 6-week-old Subaru--its odometer already reading more than 5,700 miles--raced through Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga, where the skeletons of houses under construction dotted the landscape. The homes of future commuters.

Around Montclair, Watson suddenly hit the brakes and came to a dead stop. "This little jam up here is bad news," he said of the delay that eventually added 15 minutes to his morning drive.

Later on, Watson, would be mired in intermittent traffic jams near Pomona, West Covina, El Monte and Boyle Heights that would build up and disperse like thunder showers.

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