This town has America's lousiest commute

One of the charms of living in a town or small city is supposed to be the ease of tooling around by car, zipping from home to job and back again in no time flat. Then there’s East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

The roughly 20,000 residents who call the Monroe County borough home have the dubious honor of enduring the country’s longest average commute, Census Bureau data show, topping even notorious traffic magnets like Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. (see chart below). The reason? In a phrase, real estate.

For people used to New York City’s high cost of living, the economic advantages of living in Pennsylvania are many. For one thing, people who pay the average rent of $3,073 in New York each month for an apartment can probably afford to purchase a home in northeastern Pennsylvania. According to Zillow, the median value of homes in East Stroudsburg is $122,800, well under the $637,900 level in New York, some 80 miles to the east along I-80. 

“They have been moving here in dribs and drabs for probably 30, 35 years,” said John Moyer, the chairman of the board of commissioners for Monroe County, where East Stroudsburg is located. “After 9/11, people felt [concerned] about their safety and decided that they wanted to move their families to a safer area, which theoretically we are.”

Traveling from Monroe County to New York, though, is getting increasingly difficult. According to Lawrence Malski, the head of the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority, the number of New York commuters has jumped about 10 percent over the past decade as the population grew. Traffic on the region’s main highway, Interstate 80, has gotten worse as roads are clogged with New York-bound cars.

“It’s getting to the point where you really can’t commute on 80,” he said. “The people who are on 80, whether they are New Jersey or Pennsylvania residents, are just stopped in traffic during rush hour.”

Moving to a rural area like Monroe County -- with a population of about 160,000, it’s a little more than a quarter the size of Staten Island, New York City’s smallest borough -- does require some adjustments. For one thing, Moyer notes that homeowners have to pay for expenses like utilities that are often included in their New York rent. They also sometimes have to put up with homeowners’ associations, the intrusive bane of many suburbanites.

“You can’t jump on a subway and get from Stroudsburg to Mt. Pocono,” he said. “We have good public transportation, but it’s not like being able to call a cab and get from 43rd Street to 17th Street.”

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Irina Ivanova/CBS MoneyWatch

Part of the problem is that getting around the East Stroudsburg area is difficult enough -- let alone then breaking out to get to New York. According to U.S. Census data, area residents spend an average of 39.6 minutes traveling each way from East Stroudsburg, known as the Gateway to the Pocono Mountains, to their jobs in the vicinity. 

That’s seven minutes longer than residents of the New York area spend commuting locally. Taking public transportation, such as buses, more than doubles the commute time for the Pennsylvanians to 88 minutes. Only five other U.S. geographical areas are worse for public transit, with the Hagerstown-Martinsburg region, which straddles western Maryland and West Virginia, the absolute worst, at 116 minutes.

Officials in Pennsylvania have been trying for more than two decades to build a rail line between New York City and Scranton, Pennsylvania, to ease the burdens on commuters to New York. Progress, however, is being made on the project, estimated to cost about $500 million. Construction on the first seven miles of the line is under way, thanks to a $62 million federal grant.  

According to the railroad agency’s Malski, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright  (D-Pennsylvania) and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-New Jersey), who heads the powerful House Appropriations Committee, are working together to secure the remainder of the money needed to fund the project, which may be a challenge in the hyper-partisan environment in Congress.

“We are more optimistic now than we ever have been,” he said.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.