Most people dread a commute to work that is any longer than 20 minutes. However, the poor economy, high unemployment rates and job cuts - particularly in casinos - have forced some to travel far for work.
Call them super commuters: locals who consider a drive up the Atlantic City Expressway to Philadelphia as easy as most would consider driving to the corner market.
Brian Annapolen, 39, takes commuting to another level. The restaurant chef for The Reserve steakhouse at Bally's Atlantic City drives to and from Pittsburgh every week, a 490-mile trip that takes him six and a half hours each way.
"People say I'm crazy, but they don't understand the situation," said Annapolen, who has been making his long-distance commute for more than a year. "When I got the job at Bally's, I had every intention of moving to New Jersey. But then everything happened: The economy slowed down, the housing market stalled … it turned into a mess."
Annapolen was caught in a financial trap. He and his wife, Kelly, 37, put their Pittsburgh home on the market, but after a few low-ball offers, they realized they couldn't sell without taking a loss.
"On top of that, a comparable home in New Jersey is 40 percent more," he said. "Do we sell our house for less than we needed to move to New Jersey and find ourselves immediately under water? Or do I work my schedule and go home on days off?"
He chose the latter.
Every Wednesday, Annapolen is on the road by 4 a.m. so he can make it to Bally's by 11 a.m. During his workweek, he stays with his sister, who lives in the Seaville section of Upper Township in Cape May County. On Sundays, he is back on the road by 5 p.m., arriving home around midnight.
"It took some getting used to," Annapolen said. "Now, I only dread it when I get up on Wednesday morning. Leaving is hard, going home is easier."
Annapolen, a former restaurant consultant, said Bally's is worth the drive because it offers him a creative outlet, good pay and solid benefits. The hardest part of Annapolen's commute is leaving his three children, ages 18 months to 6 years old.
"I don't get to see them off to school and things like that, so that's tough," he said. "So we (Internet chat) and talk on the phone a lot. I even go over my oldest son's homework with him on the phone at night."
Annapolen said he puts about 1,200 miles per week on his car and spends at least $300 a month on fuel. In his first year, he drove more than 52,000 miles.
On the road, Annapolen realizes he is not the only one who does this.
"I see a lot of the same guys - maybe a dozen or so - on a regular basis," he said. "Times are tough. One of my neighbors also works in New Jersey, traveling more than 1,000 miles a week. I met another guy who worked in the auto industry who had to take a job 500 miles away from his home. The difference is I have a support system here with my sister. That guy has to pay rent on an apartment where he works, plus his mortgage."
A commute by plane
Steve Calabro, 51, has a commute that's a little different. An employee for Trump Entertainment for 12 years, including as Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino's senior vice president of marketing, Calabro left the Plaza in 2006 to run a slot machine distributorship in Pennsylvania. Some governmental rule changes forced the company out of business, and Calabro was without a job.
With two kids, including one going to college, Calabro found a position with Magna Entertainment Corp. The only problem? Magna's located in Florida.
"It was a great opportunity, but I knew it was a turnaround situation," said Calabro, an Egg Harbor Township resident. "They just opened (Gulf Stream Park) in Hallandale, and they had an unsuccessful opening. They needed help. But I thought it was a job that would last a year if I was lucky."
Calabro obviously impressed them by helping turn the facility into a profitable one. Two and a half years later, he is still commuting every week to Florida. As the corporate vice president of gaming operations, he helps run the facility that features 850 slot machines, poker tables, and live and simulcast horse racing.
"I never thought I would be there this long, but I'm glad I am," he said. "I either thought something else would come up or I would be there just for the turnaround."
Generally, Calabro leaves for Fort Lauderdale every Tuesday morning on the 7 a.m. Spirit Airlines flight from Atlantic City International Airport and is in meetings by 10 a.m. He routinely returns Friday evenings.
Calabro never considered moving to Florida for two reasons: his two children.
"It was important for me from the very beginning to be able to spend quality time with my kids," he said. "That's why I decided to go back and forth. Luckily, the company's owner, Frank Stronach, understood that and respected that I needed to be with my family when I wasn't working. I think the kids appreciate that I am able to be more involved in their lives than if I lived in Florida."
While many wouldn't be able to stomach the constant flying, Calabro said he enjoys it now that he's used to it.
"It could be a nightmare when there's weather issues and you're sitting in an airport for nine hours, but overall it's not that bad," he said. "I use the time at the airport and on the plane to prepare for the work day, have some breakfast and read the newspaper. For me, it's easier than driving, which is much more stressful. I just get to sit back and do my thing. If I had to fly out of Philly or Newark, it would be considerably more difficult."
Another positive is Calabro's frequent-flier miles.
"I was able to go to Europe for free, including my hotel and airfare," he said with a laugh.
Like a true Jersey guy, Calabro said he will never move out of the state, but he has a new outlook about Florida.
"I learned that I think it would be great to be a snowbird when I retire," Calabro said. "There's something about spending the winters in Florida. I understand snowbirds now."
Average commutes shorter
While it's not uncommon for southern New Jersey residents to commute for an hour or more to get to work, the American Community Survey reported that the average Atlantic County resident from 2006 to 2008 commuted 23 minutes to work.
The United States Census Bureau is now counting the population for 2010. A decade ago, its numbers show that 60 Atlantic County residents commuted to Florida, 51 to New York City, 40 to California and 35 to Las Vegas. It's uncertain whether the new Census will reveal an increase or decline in those numbers.
"We know that we are a high-user market," said Sharon Gordon, deputy executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which does not tally commuter figures. "One of the advantages of our region is that airlines like Airtran and Spirit give us national connectivity. Spirit giving us cities like Boston and Chicago helps develop that mix of leisure and business travel, and we're moving in that direction to recapture a lot of business travel that we haven't been able to serve."
Bridgeton to Broadway
Robert Dragotta's profession as a producer of Broadway, off-Broadway and nationally touring productions means he has to work in New York City, but he considers Bridgeton home since buying a lakeside property in 1990.
Originally, the Vineland native bought the Bridgeton home so he could be close to his mother, who was ill. But now, two and a half years after his mother died, Dragotta says he would never consider leaving and moving to New York full time.
"I've been driving back and forth from New York for 20 years, and I look forward to it every week," he said. "I love Bridgeton. People say to me all of the time, 'Oh God, Bridgeton.' But every person I have brought to Bridgeton - literally kings and queens come here with me - and they love it. They love the quaintness of it. And the fact that it's filled with diversity is something I love … I'm used to it from living in New York."
Dragotta lives in Bridgeton from Thursday nights to Sundays, spending the rest of the time at an apartment in Manhattan. He mostly drives the two-and-a-half-hour distance, but he sometimes takes a train from Trenton, estimating that he spends about $5,000 a year for his commute.
"For me, I love to drive, so it's relaxing," said Dragotta, who is a producing partner on "Girls Night: The Musical" at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia to May 23. "And the car ride gives me time to devote to phone calls and business."
Dragotta said his friends and business associates don't call him crazy for his long commute.
"They are all just jealous," he said. "I love the energy of New York, but I need the escape. I realize how fortunate I am."
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