It's 6:13 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Thomas Branch whizzes through the darkness of Broad Street at 55 mph, his headlights cutting through the eerie quiet of dawn. He hangs a quick left onto Glenside Drive and steps on the gas. A minute later he pulls into a 7-Eleven and jumps out of the driver's seat, his hand clutching a travel mug. Like many people, Branch starts his day with a cup of coffee. But unlike most folks' morning java, Branch's brew is a carefully calibrated concoction. Forget the typical one cream, one sugar blend. At this early hour, and with a 13-hour day ahead of him, extreme survival tactics are necessary. Branch places his mug on the stainless-steel coffee bar, one hand instinctively reaching for the coffee pot as the other carefully counts five packets of sugar from the bin. He neatly stacks them, then rips the corner off all five packets with a single tear. He dumps the contents into his coffee mug, then repeats the process: One, two, three, four, five. Stack. Tear. Dump. He reaches into the bin again, counts out three more packets, and with a sheepish smile adds them to his mug. Thirteen sugars for a 13-hour day, much of it spent commuting 212 miles to and from Washington to his job as a business agent with the National Postal Mail Handlers Union on Connecticut Avenue. Somehow, like every morning for the past two years, Branch has made it through his first waking hour on sheer discipline and determination. By 6:19 a.m. Branch is back in the driver's seat of the 14-passenger Dodge van, racing toward the commuter lot at Staples Mill Road and Glenside Drive. As he pulls into the large, empty parking lot, three ghostly figures emerge from the darkness, lugging overstuffed briefcases toward the waiting van. As the van idles, Branch pulls out a clipboard and begins to check off the names of the 10 van pool passengers as they arrive. John McDowell, a Department of Labor employee, jumps into the passenger seat; he is nattily outfitted in a gray plaid suit and white high-top sneakers. Kristie Lockhart, an American University employee, stumbles through the darkness, her makeup-free face hidden by the hood of the fuzzy baby-blue blanket she has wrapped around her chic black pantsuit on this chilly autumn morning. Connie Hill, an environmental protection specialist with the Federal Highway Administration settles into one of the back seats, tucks her coat around her backward like a blanket and bellows, "Thomas! Turn on the heat!" At 6:29 a.m., government employee Bob Floren leaps into the van with athletic grace, followed by computer consultant Ray Burton, who flings his disheveled body into the van and slams the door just in the nick of time. Like a punctual European train, the van departs at the appointed hour: 6:30 a.m. Branch points the van in the direction of I-95 and most of the passengers drift off into much-needed sleep. [image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasKeith Harper wipes the sleep from his eyes before starting a long day as an engineer at the FCC in Washington.
Each of the 11 people in Branch's van pool has a different tale to tell about how they came to be long-distance commuters. Although their situations vary, their reason for spending nearly 20 hours on the road every week to get to and from work is universal: They want to have it all a high-powered, high-paying career in the big city; a high quality of life, with a nice house, good schools for the kids and money in the bank back home. "The quality of life I want is in Richmond, but the career I want is in Washington," says van pool member Deborah Austin, an attorney with the Public Service Activities Corp., the pro-bono arm of the D.C. Bar. The other van pool passengers adamantly agree with her statement; if this were a church service, you'd hear "Amen." Most long-distance commuters seem to have achieved the dream, at least on the surface. They hold prestigious government and military jobs with lucrative salaries and generous retirement packages. Richmond's relatively low cost-of-living allows them to live in nice suburban homes. Their kids attend the best schools. But by trying to have it all, they sacrifice much. They are bone tired. By the time they get home around 7:30 p.m. they struggle to help their kids with homework, talk to their spouses, even eat a decent supper. Routine chores such as mowing the lawn are out of the question, as is a night out on the town. It's early to bed and early to rise, so that they can be up in time to hop on the hamster wheel all over again. "There are so many things you take for granted when you work in Richmond," says Jacqueline Ford, a procurement manager for AT&T, who has been commuting from Richmond to Washington for the past three years. "The flexibility of having your own car, being able to work late if you need to ... this is a very regimented routine." The 11 road warriors in Branch's van pool are but a handful of the 102 Richmond-to-Northern Virginia commuters currently registered with Ridefinders, the local nonprofit agency that provides free information about commuter travel services. Some of the registrants ride in privately owned cars; others, like Branch, lease vans from VPSI Commuter Van Pools, a national subsidiary of Budget Rent-a-Car. More than 160 Richmond commuters ride Amtrak into Union Station every day. Another 150 or so Richmonders drive to Fredericksburg daily to hop on the Virginia Railway Express commuter line. Others commute solo at 4 a.m. or ride into Washington with nonregistered car and van pools. Some Richmonders do a "half-commute," living in the Washington area Monday through Friday and returning "home" on weekends to see their families. "We know that we don't register even a fraction of the people who are commuting to Northern Virginia," says Felicia Woodruff, executive director of Ridefinders, but she does know those numbers are growing. "It's a national trend. People are moving farther from where they work." Leo Bevon, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, adds that in major metropolitan areas, "it is fairly common for people to commute more than 100 miles [one way] to work." Bevon is a long-distance commuter himself, spending weekdays in a Richmond apartment and returning to his wife and Tidewater home on weekends. In a sense, Richmond is slowly being absorbed into the suburban sprawl of the Capital city. Already there are detailed plans to link Richmond to Washington both by high-speed rail and the Virginia Railway Express commuter line. For those who car pool, 65 mph speed limits and High Occupancy Vehicle lanes make a 90-minute or less commute possible. It may sound like a long drive to Richmonders who are accustomed to a 15-minute, traffic-free ride to work, and as anyone who has ever lived inside the Beltway knows, D.C. traffic can be horrendous. Branch knows firsthand. The Richmond native tried the half-commute approach for three years before moving back to Richmond full-time two years ago. "The amazing thing is that I had an apartment in Gaithersburg, Md., which was 20 miles from D.C. and it took me an hour and a half to get to work," he says. "Now, it takes me an hour and 45 minutes from Staples Mill Road." Even though the commute is 15 minutes longer each way, Branch says it is far less stressful. Instead of spending that time stuck in gridlock, the van cruises along (sometimes at speeds of up to 85 mph) in the HOV lanes. [image-2]Photo by Stephen SalpukasVan pool captain Thomas Branch loads up on caffeine and sugar before the morning drive to Washington.
Back on the van, Jacqueline Ford sits primly in her seat, poised to take on the day as a procurement manager for government contracts with AT&T. Even at 6:30 a.m. every hair of her shiny, shoulder-length bob is in place, her face carefully made-up with the sort of polished, understated cosmetics favored by big-city professional women. Ford has been riding the van since August 1997, and by now, this long-distance commuting thing has become habit, even though her daily schedule leaves nothing to chance. Ford gets up at 5 a.m., leaves her Chesterfield home by 6 a.m. and arrives at the commuter lot on Glenside Drive by 6:25 a.m. to catch the 6:30 van. She arrives in Washington around 8:15 a.m. and is usually at her desk by 8:30 a.m. She works straight through the day, eating lunch at her desk. She leaves work at 5 p.m., hops on the Metro and arrives at the pickup point for the van in front of Union Station at 5:20. The van leaves Washington promptly at 5:30 and arrives back at the commuter lot around 7:10 p.m. Ford usually walks through her front door at 7:40 p.m. Most nights, unless she has brought work home with her, she's in bed between 9:30 and 10 p.m. "It's a compressed day," she says. Since she transferred to Washington three years ago, Ford has tried a number of commuting options. At first she tried renting an apartment in Washington, leaving her teen-age son in the care of her mother on weekdays so that he could finish out his high school career at Benedictine. But after four months, she found that she missed her son too much and moved back to Richmond. Then she tried riding Amtrak every day, but was soon frustrated by the cost and dependability. "There were a number of nights ... that we didn't get back into Richmond until 11:15 or 12:15," she says. "And I was spending about $40 a day, with a AAA discount." She hasn't even thought about driving herself for that you have to leave by 4 a.m. to beat the traffic because a solo driver can't take advantage of the fast-moving HOV lanes. For about $161.50 per month the dependable van pool seems to be the best option, even though Ford admits wearily that "there are days when I would tell you that I don't think I could do it for another year." The problem is that she has already put in 21 years with AT&T. In another nine years, at age 52, she will be eligible for retirement. When her Laburnum Avenue division was sold three years ago and she decided to transfer to D.C. to stay with AT&T, it seemed like the smartest option. "I had too many years invested to walk away from it," she says. "A person does what they have to do ... I had to look at the long term and the investment I had already made. It was easier to think about the 12 years until retirement rather than to start all over again from the beginning." So does that mean she will continue the long-distance commute for nearly another decade? She says she has looked for a comparable job in Richmond but has yet to find one. Now that her son is a sophomore at William and Mary, it would be easier for her to move to Northern Virginia, but her grandmother has Alzheimer's and she and her mother are her primary caregivers. And besides, she says, even though her career right now is in Washington, "Richmond is home." Jump to Part 1, 2Continue to Part 2