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By Patrick Cochran, Bay News Rising staff reporter —
Ask commuters rushing to catch a Pittsburg-bound BART train at the end of a busy work day to describe their twice-a-day trek and chances are you’ll get a tart, two-word answer: “It sucks.”
Soaring prices and a housing shortage have pushed many residents of San Francisco and Oakland to the far reaches of the Bay Area where they can find affordable homes in a greener, more suburban environment. But there’s a tradeoff. Long commutes that consume as much as two hours each way are exhausting and eat into family and personal time.
“If you commute, you’re not going to be involved with school,” said Dershon Pinkston as he headed home to Pittsburg at the Montgomery Street BART station. “(If) Something happens to the kids, you’re far away and can’t be there in an instant. It can pose a problem”
Driving to work isn’t much better, say other residents of East Contra Costa County.
Ricardo Morales, a worker at San Francisco International Airport who lives in Antioch, switches back and forth between driving and taking BART. “On BART it’s about three hours (round trip), but if I drive it’s about four. They are always doing work on Highway 4, so some days it can be really bad,” he said.
Still, the commute is worth it for Morales: “I am happy. I would rather live here than San Francisco. There it cost so much for so little space. Here, I am able to have a big house with a backyard for my family. It’s better for them.”
The Bay Area’s population has grown exponentially in the last 10 years and many residents have fled the skyrocketing home and rental prices in the inner Bay Area for communities in East Contra Costa. A stock of affordable housing makes cities like Antioch, Pittsburg and Brentwood attractive destinations, but job growth in the area has not kept pace with population growth. As a result, marathon commutes have become a way of life.
“Most jobs are in Oakland or San Francisco,” said Pinkston. “A lot of people accept it for what it is, because to get a good paying job you got to commute. Two hours a day for me, but for people who live east of here you can add on at least an extra hour.”
Marlan Patterson is one of the fortunate Antioch residents who have a good paying job close to home. A bus driver for the Tri-Delta Transportation System, he sees his passengers dealing with the stress of the long commute west.
“It is definitely a hardship,” Patterson said. “I have a guy from Brentwood who rides every day. He’s got a three- or four-hour trip. It is a sacrifice for the family.”
Patterson knows what he’s talking about. He trekked to and from Fremont for 20 years, working at a now-closed auto parts manufacturer. “It was very long, and I missed out on a lot of family time because of it,” he said.
East Contra Costa used to have many unionized manufacturing jobs, but that’s no longer the case.
“It’s hard to find a job that pays over $20 here,” Patterson said. “There needs to be good paying jobs out here, ones that ordinary folks can get. If that were to happen it would solve a lot of problems.”
Waiting to catch a BART train — the first leg of her trip home to Pacifica — lifelong Bay Area resident Cindy Thompson said she considered a move to Brentwood, but decided against it.
“I have tons of friends who have moved out that way who love it,” she said. “The houses are big, yet affordable, and it’s always warm. My husband and I looked into it and it definitely was attractive. But the commute was a deal breaker.”
BART expects to extend the Pittsburg/Bay Point line to Antioch by 2017, and the agency has discussed extending the tracks as far East as Brentwood. New stations would likely alleviate at least some of the congestion, but could also push property values higher.
“My girlfriend is a real estate agent in Brentwood and she said all the properties near the BART extension are going way up in value,” Thompson said. “So I don’t know for how much longer it will be affordable to live out there.”
East Contra Costa, along with the rest of the Bay Area, is likely to continue its growth spurt. But unless transit can keep up and the local economy adds significant numbers of jobs, many of those new residents will join the old-timers and make the long haul west to work.
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