How many lawyers does it take to drive to Topeka?
It may sound like a bad joke, but 14 lawyers who live in Lawrence and commute together every day to Topeka seem to have it all figured out.
“I don’t have to have as much maintenance on my car,” said Natalie Chalmers, a research attorney for the Kansas Court of Appeals. “I save money on gas and the tolls.”
The attorneys, who work either for the Court of Appeals or the Appellate Defender Office in Topeka, all participate in the state’s van pool program.
They leave Lawrence from a parking lot near Ninth and Iowa streets each workday at about 8 a.m. The 15-passenger van they commute in usually pulls back into the lot at 5:15 p.m.
“I’m not getting my oil changed as often. The difference in terms of mileage on my car, it felt like I was coming around to oil changes all the time,” said Sarah Johnson, who coordinates the van pool.
The passengers, who pay on average about $60 a month, split the mileage and are able to pay for gas at the state nontaxed rate.
When gas prices skyrocketed last year, Johnson said she and other van pool coordinators saw an increase in interest in the commuter program.
“Strangely, I started getting a lot of calls, asking do you have any room on the van?” she said.
When the clock strikes 5, about four other vans full of commuters pull into the parking lot. The passengers jump out and quickly scatter like ants to their cars.
Carl Edwards, a 52-year-old employee of the Court of Tax Appeals, has been making the daily trek to Topeka for the past decade. But, he said, it’s worth it.
“I’d rather live here (Lawrence) than in Topeka,” Edwards said. “It’s a lot nicer town, smaller, more open, friendly. ... It’s just a more livable town.”
But how much is the commute actually costing you? And would you be better off living in Topeka or Kansas City if you work in one of those two cities?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median price of a home in Lawrence between 2005 and 2007 was $164,700. Compare that to $108,300 in Topeka and $215,900 in Overland Park.
But AAA said the real cost of commuting can be seen in the wear and tear on your car.
When you factor in fuel prices, routine maintenance, tires and depreciation, AAA estimates it costs you $54.10 in vehicle expenses for every 100 miles you commute.
Lawrence resident Dorothy Calohan, who commutes to Topeka to work for Kansas Gas Service, said none of that matters.
“I like Lawrence better than Topeka, and I wouldn’t move there just because of a job,” she said.
Still, there are ways to cut down on the costs of commuting.
Ridership on the K-10 Connector, operated by Johnson County Transit, has nearly doubled. About 20 times a day, buses shuttle people back and forth between Lawrence and Johnson County on K-10 Highway.
In 2007, 67,500 riders hopped on the route, but in 2008, that number jumped to 115,500 riders, or about 9,600 passengers a month.
“It’s been extremely successful,” said Cody Christensen, Johnson County Transit planning manager. “It started as a pilot project through KDOT (Kansas Department of Transportation), and it shows there’s a lot of people willing to ride a bus between those two communities.”
The Lawrence Transit System also launched Carpool Connection in 2006, a partnership with the Mid-America Regional Council’s RideShare Program.
The Web site matches commuters throughout Lawrence and the Kansas City area who are interested in car pooling.
Lawrence Transit spokeswoman Emily Lubliner said last year the program had 1,900 registered users. But she said the program really increased in popularity when gas prices went up. Now, there are nearly 8,200 registered users.
Fred Terry, 52, Lawrence, is one of them. He car pools with a co-worker to his job at Burns and McDonnell in Kansas City, Mo.
“I have a feeling that I’m probably priced out of the market here in Lawrence,” Terry said. “That’s a shame. You would think by the time you paid the expense of the commute and the wear and tear on the car that it wouldn’t be cost-effective, especially when gas went up, but it has turned out to be very cost-effective.”