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With gas prices climbing to near $4 a gallon, many commuters are feeling the squeeze. It's particularly acute for drivers in the northern part of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, where commutes tend to be longest.
A quarter of commuters in six counties ringing the north metro -- Wright, Sherburne, Isanti, Kanabec, Chisago and Mille Lacs -- spend 45 minutes or more one way getting to work each day.
You can see maps of the longest and shortest commutes in the state on the Cities Blog.
Tom Kline of St. Michael in Wright County braves the Interstate 94 corridor funneling south to the Twin Cities each morning. He climbs into his car at 5:58 a.m. on a recent day.
Kline and his wife moved from an apartment in Brooklyn Park to a townhouse in St. Michael a decade ago. At the time, he wasn't daunted by the 28-mile commute to his job in New Brighton.
"When we moved out here, I kind of ignored that because the real estate was so attractive," said Kline.
He has a lot of company on the road these days. Minnesota cities with the longest commute times, according to data from the American Communities Survey, are predominantly in the north metro: Chisago City, Big Lake, East Bethel, St. Francis, Oak Grove, Zimmerman, Isanti, Rush City, Elko-New Market and Rockford.
"We've seen a lot of growth in those areas in the last few years or so," said Brian Kary, operations engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Regional Transportation Management Center. "We'll see congestion starting up on some of those corridors as early as 6 o'clock in the morning."
That's when Tom Kline hits the road these days.
NO SUCH THING AS "BEATING THE RUSH"
Red taillights grow thicker as Kline reaches Maple Grove. He sighs in relief to see the interchange with I-494 and I-694 flowing smoothly on this particular day. He gestures to the overpass of cars on Highway 169, another busy pipeline to the Twin Cities.
"Sometimes I'll look up on that overpass and they'll be completely stopped, and I'm glad I'm not on that highway," said Kline. "There's been just as many times I've been stopped on this highway and went, 'Oh those guys are lucky. Those guys are moving.'"
Kline drives a 10-year-old Cadillac. He bought it a year ago for the comfortable ride. The dashboard taunts him with a digital readout of the gas mileage. It says 21 miles per gallon.
We do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Kline spends about $200 a month on gas.
"Wow, that's a lot," said Kline upon hearing the number. "That suddenly makes 40 miles per gallon sound all the much better."
Kline's been thinking about trading his Cadillac for a Chevrolet Cruze that gets better mileage. He doesn't think the Northstar commuter rail line would work for his particular commute, and he doesn't know anyone on the same shift at his plant he could carpool with.
Moving isn't an option, since he's underwater on his mortgage because of the drop in real estate values. His wife drives to Anoka each day for her job -- which is about half the distance he drives.
This day, Kline's commute took 27 minutes. The following day it snowed. Kline emailed to say it took him over an hour and he punched in two minutes late for work.
TRADEOFFS ON TRANSIT AND CONGESTION
As gas prices rise, MnDOT's Brian Kary expects to see driving habits change more during the afternoon rush hour. He notes that people can more easily reduce discretionary trips to the mall, or afternoon errands, but they can't do much about having to go to work in the morning.
In 2008, when gas prices peaked around $4 per gallon, so did metro mass transit use at 82 million rides that year. Congestion eased, but a bad economy -- meaning fewer jobs to drive to -- may also have played a role.
As the economy picked up, so did traffic. In 2010, MnDOT saw congestion rebound, reaching its highest point in the 18 years it's been keeping track.
Metro Transit is hoping the higher gas prices might give drivers an extra incentive to try an alternative means of getting to work -- even if it's only one day a week.
AUDIO POSTCARDS (click on the map points to hear a commuter from that area):