Growing Number Of Payson's Work Force Trade Long Commute For Better Wages

LIVING

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Steve Lane of Payson drives 70 miles through two counties, a trio of cities, one Indian reservation, at least three unincorporated neighborhoods - Rye, Sunflower and Jakes Corner - to get to his concrete contracting business in Mesa.

"It's tough," Lane said. "It depends on what you want out of life. I don't want to live in the rat race."

In Arizona, according to 2004 census projections, 2.4 million commuters, guzzle coffee, apply makeup, listen to dismaying traffic reports and arrive at work stressed out before the day even begins.

Payson, a town that's anything but the "rat race," has its challenges for those who live here but need a living wage.

A growing numbers of Rim Country workers -- nurses, police officers and other breadwinners -- seek relief from Payson's scarcity of workforce housing, flagging employment opportunities and below-market salaries by commuting to the Valley.

That's the sacrifice Lane makes to provide his wife, Jill, and three sons with a simpler, safer life.

"We wanted to move to a small community," Lane said. "We wanted the boys to have a better life. I live next to the National Forest and it's peaceful, and I like the outdoors."

Studies have found that most people who chose long commutes do so not for emotional benefits, but material payoffs - better homes, higher pay and more opportunities.

This is what economists call the "Commuter Paradox."

Researchers at the University of Zurich studied the impact of commuting on drivers in Europe and in the United States.

Alois Stutzer and Bruno S. Frey -- the authors of the 2004 study -- found that more time on the road and in traffic hindered a person's sense of well-being and the health of the family.

Lane's wife, Jill, said her husband's time away from home is tough on her.

"It's pretty hard," she said. "Sometimes he doesn't come home all week. Sometimes he comes home every other day. We just do what we have to do."

Craig Chlarson has been driving back and forth to Mesa to his job as an emergency room nurse for the past decade.

Four times a week he makes the hour drive in his green, 1999 Ford Ranger.

Chlarson works the graveyard shift and cherishes his time alone.

"It's a very peaceful time," Chlarson said. "I get to listen to a lot audio books. It's an unwind. It's time to myself."

Although much attention has been given to ever-growing sprawl and related commute times, the Census Bureau estimated in 2004 that Americans sit in traffic an average of 26 minutes. Arizona, ranked 18th in the nation, at 23.4 minutes one way, falls below the national average.

Some in the Payson area are "extreme commuters" who travel more than 90 minutes one way.

Lane, in addition to his weekly driving, covers the roads and highway of Arizona -- from Bullhead City to Show Low -- to oversee his projects.

In one year he logged 60,000 miles on his Chevy Quad Cab. The trip from Payson to Mesa, he said, is small potatoes compared to the mileage he accrues driving around the Valley -- as much as 300 miles a day.

And that's a lot of gas.

He fills his tank with diesel every other day, which costs around $75 each time.

But he wouldn't have it any other way. Give him his Sirius radio and ESPN and he's a happy man.

"My truck is my office," he said. "That's how I make my living."

-- To reach Felicia Megdal call 474-5251 ext. 116 or e-mail fmegdal@payson.com.

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