Far-flung commuters go the extra, costly mile for Upper Valley Jobs

  • Holly Tabor-Hall, left, and Kris Tabor-Hall get ready to leave for work at their home in Andover, N.H., on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. The couple carpool for their 45 minute commute to their jobs in Norwich, Vt., and Lebanon, N.H., respectively. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

  • Holly Tabor-Hall and Kris Tabor-Hall carpool to work from their home in Andover, N.H., on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Manager and stylist Jean Perron, of Barnet, Vt., gives a haircut to Marek Rogers, 13, of Plainfield, N.H., at Supercuts in West Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, April 1, 2022. Most of the employees at the West Lebanon Supercuts live more than 15 minutes away, and the stylist with the longest commute drives from Laconia, N.H. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Manager and stylist Jean Perron, of Barnet, Vt., gives a haircut to Amy Rawson, of Plainfield, N.H., at Supercuts in West Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, April 1, 2022. Perron drives just under an hour to work at the West Lebanon location because it is one of the franchise’s busiest stores and pays a higher hourly wage than other locations. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/3/2022 6:36:09 AM
Modified: 4/3/2022 6:35:04 AM

WEST LEBANON — Jean Perron drives far for a West Lebanon salary.

She used to live in Goffstown, N.H., and worked 30 minutes away at a Supercuts hair salon in Merrimack. But when she was up for a promotion, she made sure to put her name in for any openings in the West Lebanon store.

“It’s the busiest store our franchise owns,” Perron said. “… When you’re in the tipping industry, if you’re bored, the bills are not paid.”

The West Lebanon location pays several dollars more an hour than other branches, which typically pay about $12 an hour.

For six months, she drove an hour and 20 minutes to work in West Lebanon. Then, she and her husband, who is a stay-at-home dad, decided to move their family closer.

They looked for months, but there was nothing in their budget.

“I had to broaden my search,” she said.

She ended up in Barnet, Vt., just under an hour from her work. Before the rise in gas prices, she spent about $130 to $150 a week on gas to fill her SUV. Now, she spends closer to $170.

“I’m gone 10, 11, 12 hours a day,” she said. “I get home, and it’s dark. Sometimes, I leave when (my 6-year-old daughter) is sleeping, and I get home when she’s asleep.”

Perron is not alone. At Supercuts West Lebanon, only two out of Perron’s 13 employees live within a 15-minute drive of the store.

Living in Laconia, about an hour and 15 minutes from West Lebanon, makes financial sense for Alanna Rafter. She could never afford a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Lebanon with a spacious living room for $725 a month, although she would love to be closer to her children who live in Lebanon. The Supercuts employees interviewed said there are no public transit options, and carpooling is difficult when everyone has a different schedule.

The commercial heart of the Upper Valley — Hartford, Lebanon and Hanover — draws workers who are willing to drive more to earn more. But those same workers cannot afford to live near their work, even with the higher paycheck.

Commuting has costs of its own. Filling up at the gas station three times a week hollows out paychecks. Over time, added wear and tear on vehicles can lead to expensive repairs. An hour or two on the road means an hour or two less with their families. And the wider region feels the impact, too, as thousands of lengthy commutes compound into a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Before the pandemic, roughly 8 in 10 commuters in the Upper Valley drove alone to work, according to data collected by regional planning commissions and the American Community Survey.

It’s a fact of life in the rural regions like Vermont and New Hampshire — most workers have fewer options for their commute.

The rural transportation conundrum

Gregory Rowangould, director of the University of Vermont’s Transportation Research Center, grew up in southern New Hampshire. He came back east after years working in cities in California and New Mexico to unravel the challenge of achieving sustainable transportation in a rural area.

“The long distance that people typically travel in rural places, that’s the big challenge,” he said. “Things are spread out, which leads to auto dependence.”

In the Upper Valley, as in much of the Northeast, there is a mismatch between jobs and housing, he said. Three Upper Valley planning commissions last spring published a Keys to the Valley report, which says that the region needs around 10,000 new housing units by 2030 in order to meet the growing demand. The demand has already put upward pressure on rental prices. On the low end, many landlords charge $1,200 a month for an apartment large enough for three people, according to the developers of a middle-income apartment complex in Lebanon.

Over time, communities can build amenities, housing and jobs in more concentrated town centers, Rowangould said. People would drive less, and public transit is more effective in densely populated areas.

Van Chesnut, the executive director of Advance Transit, has seen a flurry of construction projects along bus routes since the pandemic began. With time, that will mean more riders. About half the riders on the nonprofit’s buses leave a car at home, and the other half are “transit-dependent,” he said. Advance Transit’s fleet is also gradually electrifying, with two 30-foot electric buses and three small buses on order.

But public transportation is rarely practical in the most rural places, Rowangould said. Empty buses driving great distances are not the answer to the rural transportation dilemma. The simple, while unrealistic, solution is to have everyone live where the population is dense, Rowangould added. But he wants to find other answers.

“I don’t think anyone moves to Vermont, to the Upper Valley, to live in a big city,” he said. “How do you make this work in a rural place without making the rural place an urban place?”

He looks at solutions on the scale of both individual choices and public policies. Buying a low-emission vehicle makes a difference, whether that’s an electric vehicle, a hybrid or a fuel-efficient internal combustion engine. Carpooling, combining trips or choosing to live a little closer to a grocery store help too.

The recent spike in gas has forced people to drive less. It has also highlighted just how little infrastructure there is for people in rural areas who want to use less gas but still need to get to work, do their errands and visit their families.

Holly Tabor-Hall and her wife, Kris, live in Andover, N.H., and commute together to the Upper Valley. Holly works at The Family Place, in Norwich, and Kris works at FitKids Childcare in Lebanon. Holly chose her job in part because she could carpool with her wife. They spend about two hours a day in the car. She doesn’t mind the drive — “Getting close, you don’t have that time to wind down,” she said. And she looks forward to listening to John Grisham and James Patterson audiobooks together.

But their commute has left them vulnerable to gas prices. $420 a month on gas was already high in February, but more recently, they’ve spent more than $690 a month.

“It is hard all around,” Tabor-Hall said.

Living in a rural town has left them with limited options as they try to save on fuel. Tabor-Hall prefers public transportation to driving, and she would buy an electric car if there was enough charging infrastructure. But Andover has no chargers, and no bus runs to Norwich.

The Tabor-Halls are doing all they can to drive less. They do their grocery shopping right after work. Until prices go back down, they won’t be taking any scenic weekend drives, and they won’t be visiting their families in Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island.

Transit and infrastructureof sustainability

Chris Peck, the head painter at Dartmouth and president of Local 560 of the Service Employees’ International Union, bought a home in Vershire in 2003. That year, he also traded a 72-mile one-way commute for a 24-mile commute.

“I lucked out,” he said. “I could just barely afford it — it was a fixer-upper. It was expensive even then for me.”

He doubts he could afford his home these days. He admits that he benefited from the housing bubble; he qualified for a loan he wouldn’t have gotten in 2022. Since then, families from out of state bought property on his street during the pandemic, and he has seen friends’ homes in other towns ascend in value by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The older employees in the union, who were able to buy a home decades ago, tend to live close to Dartmouth. But the younger union members often drive at least 30 minutes, and Peck knows Dartmouth employees who have been looking for housing in the area for years. Some commute from as far as Concord, Vt., which is over an hour away.

Before the pandemic, Dartmouth paid for vans for employees who carpooled.

The vans each cost over $1,000 a month, but Dave Newlove, Dartmouth’s associate vice president of business and hospitality, said it was worth it.

Dartmouth has a chronic parking shortage, and “it meant only one parking space being taken versus multiple,” he said. The college also incentivizes carpooling with parking spots, and there are emergency rides home in case someone needs to leave sooner than their carpool group.

But Dartmouth indefinitely suspended the van program during the pandemic; Newlove argued employees aren’t comfortable being in an enclosed space. So about four of the employees who used a van are now crammed into one employee’s Toyota Corolla, Peck said.

Daniel Currier, a public transit coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said that more employers are looking at how they can help workers with their commute.

“Transportation is the new option that potential employees are looking for,” he argued.

Hypertherm pays its associates to carpool, walk, bike or take public transit to work. If a carpool has at least four people, the driver earns $14 a day and each passenger earns $4.

“That’s been pretty effective,” said Robin Tindall, the company’s environmental stewardship team leader. Drivers are paid even if the passengers don’t work at Hypertherm, and 59 associates have taken advantage of the driver incentive since July 2021. Right now, Tindall and her team are getting ready to re-launch the company’s vanpool, and they hope to expand it to new clusters where associates live, including the New Hampshire seacoast. Hypertherm subsidizes the vans, and then members of the vanpool see some reductions to their paychecks. Since the rise in gas prices, she has also seen interest in EV charging accelerate, and Hypertherm plans to add chargers to meet demand.

Vermont subsidizes vanpools, paying 75% for the first three months and 50% going forward. Both states offer a carpool matching service and emergency rides home. Currier also targets large employers and tries to arrange carpools. In regions too sparsely populated for fixed route public transit, Currier sees vanpooling and carpooling as a solution.

Pushing someone to change their behavior is the hardest part, he said. As Billy Lyons, vice president of the Dartmouth employee union, half-humorously admitted, he probably wouldn’t carpool even if four of his neighbors made the same drive. (He also only commutes from Lebanon).

“The whole thing of carpooling is such a psychological thing,” he said.

Without his own car, he would feel trapped.

“It would have to be a pretty good incentive,” he said.

Electric vehicles

Dartmouth will have a total of 12 EV chargers by July, Newlove said. He oversees transportation at the college and has seen demand for chargers from faculty.

In much of the Upper Valley, especially for people whose employers invest in chargers, electric vehicles are an easy choice. Laurie Beyranevand drives a half-hour from Woodstock to South Royalton, where she directs the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at the Vermont Law School.

She and her husband pay about $250 a month to rent an electric vehicle. The small, battery-powered station wagon gets her over the hilly route to the Vermont Law School. There, she plugs her car in as she works and has a full charge on her way home.

The biggest hurdle is planning trips around where they can charge, she said.

“But once you have one you know, it’s the same as knowing where a gas station is,” she said. Vermont has over 300 public charging stations, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. New Hampshire, though it has more than twice the population of Vermont, has about 160 stations, lagging among its New England neighbors. These figures do not include home chargers or Tesla’s network of chargers.

But public perception is also a barrier to electric vehicles. Several people interviewed questioned just how “green” buying an electric vehicle whose battery depends on the extraction of rare earth metals could be. The metals are not as rare as their name implies; however, they are found in low concentrations in the earth’s crust. They are hard to separate from other elements, and the process often produces toxic waste.

In terms of global warming, though, electric vehicles remain the greener choice. “Carbon dioxide equivalent emissions associated with metals extraction and production (for an electric vehicle) were equivalent to between 10% and 29% of carbon emissions reduction through electric vehicle use,” according to a recent Chinese study published in the journal Nature. So the carbon impact of making an EV does not undo the emissions saved by switching from an internal combustion engine.

The researchers suggest targeting metal-rich deposits, using as little of the rare earth metals as possible and recycling. They estimate that emissions from extraction could be reduced by as much as 90%.

But cost is its own roadblock, and subsidies are not always enough to make a difference. While Rowangould has seen evidence that places with subsidies for electric vehicles have a larger share of their population buying EVs, he cautioned that this does not necessarily mean people are buying EVs because of the subsidies. Subsidies in Vermont, for example, are limited to low- and moderate-income households. But it’s not clear if the subsidies available are actually enough to make a difference to a family that cannot afford a relatively new, high-tech vehicle.

But for Alanna Rafter, who works at Supercuts West Lebanon, an EV is beginning to look more and more practical. Since gas prices rose, “I try not to go anywhere unless I really have to,” she said. She’s halfway through a car loan, though, and she will wait to consider an EV seriously until she’s ready to buy new vehicle.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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