When Carol Siegel retired from a job at the University of Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic offered her a position on its institutional review board.
Siegel, who lives in downtown Minneapolis, couldn't refuse the job, which involves the ethics and welfare of research involving human subjects. But she didn't want to move Rochester. So she tried to commute.
"I drove down on a beautiful October day and I thought 'Oh, this won't be hard,' " said Siegel, 67. "And then after the first week, I realized I couldn't possibly do this five days a week."
So for the last four years, Siegel has packed books and sometimes a movie, brought along a sweater, and let someone else do the driving. She takes a tour bus from the Twin Cities to Rochester, and has plenty of company on the 86-mile trip.
About 1,000 of the clinic's 32,000 employees take commuter buses to work each day. They're among 12,000 who commute to Rochester. Some drive their cars, and others carpool.
The bus Siegel takes offers Wi-Fi that allows workers to finish work, browse the Internet or play Scrabble on their cell phones.
Among them is Sunil Desai, a tech specialist at Mayo, who has ridden the bus for 14 years, first from Albert Lea. For the last decade, he's taken the bus from the Twin Cities.
"Lately, the bus has been quite full," Desai said. "I mean, gas goes over $3.50 and you start seeing a lot of new faces."
Sitting in front of Desai is Wanda Duellman, a dietician at St. Mary's Hospital who lives in West St. Paul. This is her first year taking the bus.
"Even when gas was cheaper, I always think I should ride the bus because it's better for the environment," she said.
Fares vary, depending on where riders catch the bus. For those coming from the Twin Cities, the bus fare is $268 a month. The clinic reimburses employees $80 a month if they take the Rochester City Lines commuter bus, which serve 40 cities around the region, including Byron, Winona and Bloomington.
Since the program started in the early 1980s, ridership has typically increased in the winter months and decreased in the summer, said Tim Stafford, general service manager for Mayo Clinic Parking and Transportation.
Stafford said it's too early to tell whether commuting habits have changed for Mayo employees as a result of the recent rise in gas costs. But he has noticed more winter riders are still using the bus.
"We haven't seen the big decrease we'd normally expect this time of year," Stafford said. "So I think that with the gas costs, that effect, and when winter comes, we'll see exactly how much of an increase we'll expect."
Mayo encourages employees to ride the commuter bus or car pool since downtown parking in Rochester is at a premium. Those who drive must park in a commuter lot and then take a bus downtown, Stafford said. It can take as long as 10 years for an employee to land a parking spot downtown.
Most Mayo commuters are monthly or annual pass holders, according to Dan Holter, owner of Rochester City Lines. The routes are open to the public, and on any given day, anyone can pay the cash fare, he said.
Many riders on the bus have already done the math.
Jon Zurn, a senior proposal writer at Mayo's Strategic Funding Office, figures the commuter bus saves him at least half of what it could cost to drive, even though he has a hybrid Toyota Prius. A round-trip bus fare is $6, versus $16 to $18 that he would spend on gas per day. He also likes taking the bus because he can doze off, look at the cornfields and unwind after work.
"You can see 10, 12 deer in a group, wild turkeys, a fox at the side of the road," Zurn said. "It is a little taste of the outdoors."
For Desai, the tech specialist working on his laptop, the commute has helped structure his work days.
"The bus does make you punctual," he said. "I know 10 minutes to 5 o'clock, members of my team are literally standing outside my door. They want me to make sure I don't miss my bus because if I do, one of them is going to drive me home. And nobody wants to drive me to the cities. So they make sure I get out on time."
Desai said he misses that routine the few times a year he does drive to and from Rochester. On those days, he's sure to put in a late night at the office.