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Commuting is a way of life for Sharpsburg man and thousands of others in Washington County

Commuting is a way of life for Sharpsburg man and thousands of others in Washington County

July 30, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

SHARPSBURG - Bill Hamilla gets out of bed at 4 a.m., nearly two hours before sunrise. While it's still dark, he brews a cup of coffee, fixes a sack lunch - canned chicken and yogurt - and prepares a to-go breakfast of oatmeal and a banana.

The banana will get eaten in the car, during the 58-mile hour-long drive to work. He eats the oatmeal shortly after the sun comes up, about the same time he arrives at his desk. All the while, his wife and children are sound asleep.

"She's not a morning person," Hamilla said of his wife, Carol.

This is the daily routine for Hamilla, a 43-year-old engineering supervisor who lives in Sharpsburg and works in Reston, Va., and perhaps thousands of other Washington County residents, according to the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

In Washington County, there are 16,378 residents who commute out of the county to work on a daily basis, according to the EDC. The commission is wrapping up an Out-Commuter Workforce Study it launched with Towson University's Regional Economics Studies Institute in April. EDC officials hope the study will help attract businesses that better match the workforce here, said Tim Troxell, the EDC's executive director.

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"I would love to work in Hagers-town and not have to commute," Hamilla said.

So why not move closer to work?

"I like where I live," Hamilla said. "I'd love to work in Washington County, but the jobs (I'm looking for) just aren't there and the salaries aren't the same. And housing in Fairfax County is ridiculous. I'd end up spending so much money on a postage stamp-sized house."

In Hagerstown, a mid-level civil engineering supervisor makes around $84,000 a year, according to online salary index Salary.com. In Reston, the same job pays about $93,000.

Hamilla has been a long-distance commuter for 18 years, since he took a consultant job near Washington, D.C. He later took a job with Lockheed-Martin in Reston and has been commuting there from Sharpsburg since 1994.

He put 35,000 miles on his 2003 Buick Century in one year. By his estimates, he spends $60 per week on gas and another $30 per week on tolls. "That's not too bad," he said.

By leaving for work at 5 a.m., Hamilla said he's able to beat the traffic. He gets off work at 3:30 p.m., and he returns home by 5 p.m.

Still, it took several years of intensive map reading and a bit of trial and error for Hamilla to devise his hour-long route. He avoids Interstates 70 and 270.

When Hamilla lived in Frederick, Md., it took him two hours to get into the District. Now, a maze of back roads takes him from Sharpsburg to the Dulles Greenway and Dulles Toll Road.

Instead of dodging slow-moving cars, Hamilla has to brake for the fawns and foxes that occasionally wander across the roads before dawn. One morning, Hamilla had to remove a black snake from his car's windshield.

Hamilla and his family live on a 20-acre plot, where they grow corn and have a pasture. He grew up on a 40-acre farm in Frederick County, Md.

"In the morning, when you wake up, it's not uncommon for a deer to greet you at the window," he said. "You won't find that kind of wildlife in Reston, unless you go to the zoo."

Over the years, Hamilla said he's noticed more cars with out-of-state plates on the road and more houses in places where empty fields used to be. Traffic is slower on the way home due to construction.

"They're going to have to make these roads wider," Hamilla said, peering above his eyeglasses at the chain of cars in front of him during a recent commute.

During the drive, he'll mentally sift through the day's to-do list. When it's a bit too quiet, he'll listen to talk radio or the news. "But after a while, it starts repeating," he said. "Then I'll put on an audio book."

Audiobooks usually come in a set of 12 cassettes, "enough for one week," Hamilla said.

Still, the commute can get lonely, Hamilla said.

"I wouldn't mind having a person in the car sometimes," he said. "But it's so hard to carpool. Especially if the boss wants you to stay a little later."

"Nobody ever really enjoys the commute," he said. "Maybe, one day when I'm older I'll get tired of it. But for now, I'm fine with it."

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