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Commuting has high costs beyond gas

Back in 1999, Spring Hill builder Scott Nicoletti told a Times reporter that he was starting to sell more houses to working-age customers who planned to commute to Tampa — which he saw as the county's economic future.

"We have to focus on being a bedroom community to the Tampa area,'' he said.

And why not?

When the Suncoast Parkway opened in 2001, it seemed hard to imagine commuters would ever have to worry about congestion. And the lower cost of houses in Hernando more than made up for the extra expense of buying gas, which dipped to as low as $1.08 in early 2002. Coincidentally or not, that was just about the start of the real estate boom in Hernando.

Now, obviously, the boom is over.

The unanswered question is whether rising gas prices will ever again allow Hernando — or any community on the outer fringe of a metropolitan area — to attract large numbers of commuters.

"Suburbia is over in America, we just don't know it yet,'' said James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency (2005), which predicted that the energy shortage would force wholesale changes in our development patterns.

That, possibly, includes the end of air-conditioning, he said, which would return Florida to its pre-World War II status as "more of an agricultural backwater.''

Okay, so he's a bit pessimistic. But even moderates who see less dramatic fuel-price increases say people are becoming less willing to take on long commutes.

"We have a fundamental change in transportation costs, and one of the ways people will adapt is to change their commuting decisions,'' said Steve Polzin of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

That's the way it looks to Jeanne Gavish, a real estate agent in Spring Hill who says she has seen has some resurgence in the traditional Hernando market: retirees.

"But not commuters,'' she said.

In fact, it's not clear the county was ever able to sell as many houses to commuters as developers planned.

Yes, the median age of county residents dropped nearly five years between 1990 and 2006, to 45.3 years. But the percentage of workers commuting out of the county — 33 percent in 2000 — increased less than 2 percentage points in the next six years.

Personally, I don't want to see that number go any higher.

Economic planners will tell you some of the limits of marketing the county as a bedroom community:

Commuters spend a lot of their money at shops and restaurants near their jobs rather than near their houses. The county misses out on tax revenues from factories and office parks.

What seemed like minor worries about long-distance commuting a decade ago have become national preoccupations: road-building costs, dwindling energy supplies and greenhouse gases from car exhaust.

Less obvious are the social drawbacks of long commutes: residents less invested in their hometowns, with less time for families or, for example, to coach youth sports or volunteer at schools.

There comes a point, in other words, when bedroom communities aren't really communities at all.

Commuting has high costs beyond gas 07/07/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 12, 2008 8:47pm]
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