- Matthew Thorsen
Daily commutes can be tough, especially when there's a lake in your way. Just ask Jonathan Nelson. Every weekday at 7 a.m., this software pro steps out of his wife's car in Plattsburgh, waves goodbye to their three children, and boards a ferry for a 12-minute ride. Then he climbs into a second car he's left parked at the Grand Isle ferry landing, and drives it half an hour to his Colchester office.
Nelson, 31, is one of many northern New Yorkers who work in Vermont. Why would anyone choose to make the schlep? Is this lifestyle a choice? And what do commutes like this one say about economic trends in the Champlain Valley and the neighboring Adirondacks?
On a recent Friday morning, a bank of clouds drapes itself over Lake Champlain as Nelson walks across the Plattsburgh loading dock and boards the ferry. There he climbs a grimy staircase and opens the door to a wood-paneled passenger cockpit. Then he lays a laptop down on a wire bench and stares through a row of streaked, squarish windows. On the deck below, a few compact American cars jockey into position. A lone 18-wheeler brings up the rear, and its bleary-eyed driver spreads a newspaper across his dashboard. The boat sags for a moment under the weight before lurching forward, toward Vermont.
Though he wears an imposing leather jacket, Nelson's expression is approachable. "I guess the commute is long by Chittenden County standards," he acknowledges. "But jobs like the one I have in Vermont? You just can't get them in Plattsburgh."
Nelson works as an implementation consultant at Systems and Software. It takes him an hour and 10 minutes to get to his desk from his home in Beekmantown, a sleepy Clinton County village six miles north of Plattsburgh. Every month, he forks over about $110 for ferry and gas expenses. This comes on top of the $2000 he invested in his '94 Toyota Corolla - an unofficial "commuter" car that he leaves in Vermont. Out of about 100 employees at the firm, Nelson is the only one he knows of who comes from across the lake. "Most of my coworkers commute about 10 or 15 minutes," he says.
For commuters like Nelson, New York State isn't just a cheap place to crash. Nelson has lived in Beekmantown since the late 1990s - he only started riding the ferry in 2005, when he lost his telecommuter job with IBM. His wife still teaches social studies at Beekman- town Middle School, and her extended family lives nearby. Then there's the lifestyle: Nelson, a fisherman, says he likes the slower pace in the Adirondacks. "It's a nice place," he notes. "We're 60 miles from Montréal, 150 from Albany. The lake's a big enough barrier to give us a separation from Burlington. You can live in the country . . . but you have access to a hospital if you need it."
Other commuters bend their days around quirkier routines. By the time Nelson arrives in Colchester at 8, Gene Tougas has already been awake for six hours. A 46-year-old custodial supervisor at Middlebury College, Tougas has a voice that's slow and methodical, like a car engine warming up in winter. Sitting in his cozy basement office in the campus facilities building, he narrates a typical commute: Every weekday morning, he leaves his home in Mineville, New York, at 2:30 a.m. and drives across the Champlain Bridge to arrive at work by 3:10. Like Nelson, Tougas values his ride for the solitude it offers. "I use my travel time wisely," he declares in a pseudo-serious tone. Then he jokes, "I'd need therapy if I worked in Mineville."
Hardly anyone does. "Most of the people I know work somewhere else," Tougas admits. He estimates that half the New Yorkers he knows work in Vermont. His experience reflects a common theme of the American workplace: Of all new employees added to the workforce in the last decade, 51 percent had jobs outside their home county. The number of new solo drivers in America has grown by almost 13 million since 1990.
Singular as it may sound, Tougas' tale echoes regional economic trends. Originally from East Middlebury, he bought his Mineville home in 1999 for $47,000, when he retired from the Navy and moved back to the area. Now it's worth around $87K, he guesses. Compare that with the average price of primary residence sales for Addison County in 2005 - $222,376 - and it's no surprise that Middlebury College's custodial staff includes three other New Yorkers.
Family also factors in Tougas' location. Even though most of his extended family lives in the Champlain Valley, Mineville turns out to be conveniently located between Glens Falls and Plattsburgh, where his two grown daughters live.
Tougas, who earns $50K including his Navy pension, admits that fuel costs are an ever-present concern - the commute runs him about $40 per week. But if gas went up a buck a gallon, "It wouldn't change a thing," he maintains. His wife, who earns minimum wage at the Mariah Central School District, worked at Ames in Middlebury until the department store went out of business in 2001. "If Ames hadn't closed down," Tougas reflects, "she'd probably still be working in Vermont."
For other New York commuters, the daily haul has more to do with pure circumstance than cost-benefit analysis.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Julia Turner-Rust, 48, sits in her seventh-floor office at Burlington's Fletcher Allen hospital. A pair of clean medical scrubs and a tidy row of filing cabinets complement this assistant-nurse manager's crisp manner. Like Jonathan Nelson, Turner-Rust spends about two hours in her car every day. Thoughts about this evening's commute might be on her mind, but from this height, traffic on Colchester Avenue looks small and incidental.
Turner-Rust, who grew up in Plattsburgh, attended nursing school in Florida. In 1993, she moved back to New England for a job at Fletcher Allen's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and bought a house with her husband in nearby Hinesburg. But her husband died later that year, so she moved to Peru, New York, to be closer to family - and free childcare. Turner-Rust, who earns between $60K and $70K, insists that cost "didn't motivate me to go over there." But she acknowledges that she got a "good deal" on her home: 2100 square feet for $93K. That correlates with larger patterns: According to 2000 census figures, the median value of owner-occupied housing in Clinton County in 2000 was $84,200 - about $55K less than in Chittenden County.
Turner-Rust appears to be as baffled as Tougas that anyone would take an interest in her routine. "It can be tough in the wintertime - not my favorite thing in the world," she says. But she acknowledges, "It really is a part of my life . . . I've been doing it for so long that I don't even think about it." It's become part of her daughter's life, too: The 23-year-old now works part-time at the hospital with her mom, and they sometimes ride in together.
Turner-Rust and her daughter aren't the only hospital staff on the boat. According to an official at Fletcher Allen, 92 of the approximately 6500 employees commute from across the lake. Does this mean they've formed a commuter community? Not exactly: Turner-Rust confesses that she knows only about five out of 92 fellow out-of-staters. "And that's stretching it," she clarifies. Before, when she worked as a staff nurse, Turner-Rust often carpooled with other employees. But in her new position, her schedule is no longer compatible with those of her colleagues. So she commutes solo whenever her daughter's not working.
This scenario sounds familiar, at least to a spokeswoman from Lake Champlain Transportation Company. Since the late 1970s, she's seen carpooling among ferry-goers drop off steadily. And according to a national study, carpooling shares declined from 20 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 2000.
Statistics aside, ferry commuters connect with each other in small and often unexpected ways. Turner-Rust, for one, asserts that she's known some of the ferry company employees since she started commuting 13 years ago. "You don't see a lot of turnover on those boats," she notes. Once, in fact, when she didn't show up at work, her colleagues at the hospital called the ferry operator to ask after her whereabouts.
About a half-mile from Turner-Rust's office, Maureen Benedict sits in a coffee shop on Williston Road nursing a 24-ounce Styrofoam cup. "That'll keep me going until tomorrow morning," Benedict says. Tonight, she'll work a 16-hour shift as a weather observer at Burlington airport. Then she'll crash at a hotel during the day on Saturday before logging another 16 hours that night. On Sunday, she'll drive two-and-a-half hours home to Norfolk, New York - just in time for work at another job in her home county on Monday morning.
Benedict has three other jobs, all closer to where she lives. But at $17 per hour, her airport gig pays almost twice as much as anything she could find around Norfolk.
"I kind of follow the weather," Benedict explains, describing her airport job. Though her fit, wiry figure projects an air of confidence, her direct gaze hints at an inner exhaustion. Benedict's phrases, too, waver between lucid assertion and somber reflection, as if she were a little jet-lagged.
Why so many part-time jobs? Although it may seem counter-intuitive, Benedict, 48, says she does it for the stability. "If I can multitask and do more jobs," she claims, "I'll never be out of work." And her jobs enable a humanitarian instinct. When she's not keeping the runways safe, she's driving an ambulance, running a seatbelt-education program or serving as a substitute teacher at a local school. She also does volunteer work. Last year, she tried out for the Burlington Police Department, but failed the push-up test.
Even if she'd made the force, Benedict reflects, it probably wouldn't have affected her commute. She and her husband pay about $250 per month for their mortgage, so a $1000-per-month apartment in Burlington would be out of the question. On top of that, next year her 18-year-old son heads to SUNY Canton, where tuition runs at $13,535. And her husband's employer recently cut some of the Benedicts' insurance benefits. "Now [our plan] doesn't cover mammograms," she says. "If you have major stuff, you're in trouble - so you've got to stay healthy."
Benedict points out, "I'm not doing more than anyone else is doing." In her hometown, she observes, "You can find a house for sale on any street." Her neighbors make daily commutes to places like Saranac Lake (73 miles), Watertown (80 miles) and Plattsburgh (90 miles) to work in prisons, medical offices and colleges. Her college-bound son has been trying to find a minimum-wage job for two years. Her other son, 23, will re-join the military in May.
Benedict looks up mournfully from her coffee at the young women behind the counter. "These girls work hard," she insists. "If they don't have a mother or father, who are they going to fall back on? I just hope there'll be jobs out there for my kids, so they don't have to drive so many miles. So they'll stay in their communities."
As Benedict climbs into her silver Buick outside the coffee shop, Jonathan Nelson is locking his Toyota in the Grand Isle ferry parking lot. When he walks off the ferry in Plattsburgh, his wife will be waiting for him with their children, ages 1, 3 and 4. Nelson is thinking of buying a second commuter car so his wife won't have to pick him up at the ferry once their kids are in school. The family has also considered buying a new home on Cumberland Head - the peninsula that also houses the ferry landing.
Cumberland Head isn't all that much closer to the boat than Beekmantown, however. "If we moved to [Cumberland Head]," Nelson admits, "it would be more for psychological reasons than anything else."
As Nelson and other New Yorkers drive home from the ferry in tonight's twilight, they might pass, in a 3-mile stretch between the landing dock and downtown Plattsburgh, four empty storefronts and one abandoned factory. And before that, in a clearing on the side of the road, they might notice a wooden sign that reads: "New Homes: $172,000."