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Commuting on the rise in Rock County

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Stacy Vogel
August 10, 2008
— Steve Engelbert didn’t consider moving to Madison when he got a job there nearly a decade ago.

His wife worked in Janesville and Beloit, and his children attended Janesville schools, he said.


“We just kind of made Janesville our home, and we wanted to stay there and raise our children there,” he said.


So Engelbert joins more than 13,000 people who wake up every weekday in Rock County and drive outside the county for work, often to Madison or Rockford, Ill.


As more and more jobs leave Rock County, residents are finding it tougher to get jobs close to where they live. Yet many still choose to live in Rock County after finding jobs elsewhere.


By 2000, twice as many people commuted out of Rock County as into it, according to the U.S. Census.


Which begs the question: Is Rock County becoming a bedroom community?


Dan Kruse, president of the Rock-Green Realtors Association, said he wouldn’t go that far.


“I don’t think we’re nearly to that level in Rock County,” he said. “I think there’s still a lot of good jobs and a lot of stable positions in Rock County.”


But he believes the county will see more people commuting in the future, he said.


In 1990, 20 percent of Rock County residents commuted outside the county for work, according to the South Central Wisconsin Commuter Transportation Study. By 2006, that number had risen to 26 percent. The number could go even higher after recent job losses at General Motors and other companies.


Commuters give various reasons for making long trips to work:


-- Housing prices are lower in Rock County.


-- They like their community.


-- One spouse works in Rock County and one works outside of it.


-- They don’t want to uproot their children.


Low housing prices are what drew Joe Clark back to his hometown of Janesville.


He started working in the Madison area after graduating from Blackhawk Technical College because he couldn’t find a job in Rock County, he said.


He and his wife, Alicia, lived in Madison for a while and then Edgerton. But when it came time to buy a house, the attractive prices sent them back to Janesville, he said.


“We were able to buy a house in Janesville for less than we were renting,” he said.


In its August issue, Money Magazine ranked Janesville 16th in the country for affordable homes, with a median home price of $124,700.


“If somebody can get a comparable house in Rock County, and it’s $100,000 less than moving up to, say, Madison … they very well may choose to stay in the Rock County area,” Kruse said.


Still, as gas prices continue to rise, commuting distance might start outweighing other factors, he said.


“Once you get into a couple more years, you might see a lot more people saying, ‘I’ve got to get closer to work,’” he said.


Tim Wellnitz took the opposite approach: He brought work closer to him.


He commuted about five years from Janesville to Madison to work in state government. In May, he took a job as assistant city attorney in Janesville, in part to escape the daily commute, he said.


“The benefits (of changing jobs) are wide-ranging, which includes obviously not having to pay all that extra gas,” he said. “You don’t have to waste that time in the car.”


ROCK COUNTY COMMUTERS


The South Central Wisconsin Commuter Transportation Study reports the below job locations of Rock County residents:


1990 2000 2006


Rock County 80% 78% 74%


Wisconsin, outside Rock County 10% 14% 20%


Outside Wisconsin 10% 9% 6%



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