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Long commutes, gas prices crimping American Dream

The view at sundown from the McCausland family home paints an unlikely picture of how high gasoline prices are deflating the modern-day American suburban dream.

Brian McCausland with two of his four daughters at their Pennsburg home. In real estate parlance, families like his "drive to qualify" for a mortgage.
Brian McCausland with two of his four daughters at their Pennsburg home. In real estate parlance, families like his "drive to qualify" for a mortgage.Read moreBrian McCausland

PENNSBURG, Pa. - The view at sundown from the McCausland family home paints an unlikely picture of how high gasoline prices are deflating the modern-day American suburban dream.

On the back deck you can watch the setting sun explode into orange and crimson streaks before oozing into a rolling ridge on the horizon. It's the kind of place a child remembers for a lifetime.

When Brian and Dawn McCausland bought this Colonial on a half acre in Montgomery County in 2004, they made a deal with the devil during a sky-high housing market: They and their four daughters would live here, but Brian would commute 100 miles round-trip to his job as an insurance adjuster in Delaware County.

A gallon of gas at the time was $1.76 - $150 a month for their 2002 Chevy Malibu. It beat paying more for a similar house closer to work.

But now, with gas averaging $3.30 and rising, the McCausland dream is getting soaked at the pump to the tune of $300 a month, or $3,600 a year, double their cost four years ago. They are among many families of modest means who took on big commutes from exurbia for a taste of upward mobility.

"My yearly increases in my salary and bonuses are only going to cover the increase in the cost of gas," said McCausland, 40, who graduated from La Salle University in 1989 with a double major in finance and management - and the expectation that, by now, he'd be more financially secure.

"I'm really not making any more than I had been," said McCausland. "I'm not getting ahead."

The McCauslands say they are doing OK. Like many families facing inflation and the economic uncertainty of the day, they are working more hours, cutting expenses, and shopping at discount stores.

But the commuting bill is proving a stubborn foe.

The family vacation? It was almost scrapped this year. Replacing the nine-year-old family minivan? Fantasy. Dawn McCausland has picked up a few hours a day helping out at Catholic school to ease tuition costs for their four girls.

"The gas is just putting that extra squeeze on," Brian McCausland said. "That's really making it tough."

The McCauslands live in a four-bedroom, 2,400-square-foot house that faces a cornfield in a hilly subdivision near Berks County. Yet, extravagant does not describe them.

None of the four girls, ages 11 to 5, has a cell phone, unlike some others their age. Dawn prays that their aging minivan doesn't break down. Birthday cupcakes come from the Wal-Mart SuperCenter.

Brian is a registered independent who likes John McCain and listens to Michael Smerconish in the car. He thinks none of the presidential candidates has figured out how to fix the economy.

His 75-minute commute includes a dash down the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike before picking up Route 1 South toward State Farm Insurance at Route 202 in Concordville.

Though he's only 40, he's had plenty of scrapes with the cruel side of the economy. He was laid off twice after college - once while in his 20s and just a few months before his wedding.

Brian married Dawn, a Pennsbury High School graduate, in 1993 after the pair met at work. They bought their first house in Bucks County.

"He's my buddy," Dawn says of her parenting partner.

All of his post-college life, Brian has commuted at least 45 minutes to work - except for six years when a job transfer took him to Doylestown, a mere 10 minutes from home.

"I thought I had died and gone to heaven," he said.

Brian and his six siblings were raised in the heart of the suburbs: Chalfont. A West Philadelphia native, his father moved to the suburbs because that's where the bank trust officer found good jobs.

Brian's mother, Grace McCausland, 78, a Germantown native, became the sole provider when her husband died of cancer. Brian, the baby, was 11 when he lost his dad.

Six of the children are college graduates - a factoid Brian reveals only when pressed about his upbringing. In fact, he doesn't dwell on his past or dream of extravagances, but just faces the concrete demands of each new day.

His four closest friends in the world? He met them in the first grade. He doesn't seek the limelight and reluctantly agreed to participate in this story.

This house, he and Dawn explain, is not a McMansion they cannot afford. Quite simply, it represents what they always believed: The next generation deserves a better life.

Regional highway statistics suggest super commutes grew in number during the recent real estate boom.

An estimated 20,000 workers travel 40 miles or more each way to jobs in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey, said Don Shanis, deputy executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

On the Pennsylvania Turnpike alone, the number of round-trips of 70 miles or more increased last year:

In 2007, there were 23,861 more 72-mile round-trips between Allentown and Plymouth Meeting than in 2006, said Turnpike Commission spokesman Carl DeFebo.

Last year, there were 10,285 more round-trips between Reading and Valley Forge (80 miles total) than in 2006.

And on the lower end, there were 8,212 more round-trips in 2007 between Quakertown and Plymouth Meeting (48 miles total).

In real estate parlance, families like the McCauslands "drive to qualify" for a mortgage; the big house they want is affordable only in far-out communities.

Like them, about 5 percent to 7 percent of the nation's metropolitan commuters spend more than two hours a day getting to and from work, said Robert Dunphy of the Urban Land Institute, in Washington.

Such commuters often are pursuing a post-World War II idea that success is measured as a new house in the burbs. Expensive gasoline and the growing scarcity of developable land closer to job centers is threatening that ideal.

"Maybe that dream just isn't there anymore," Dunphy said, "that dream of being able to go and get your half-an-acre somewhere out there and bringing up your kids on a large lot."

Dawn and Brian McCausland don't want to sell their house; that would feel like failure. Nor do they want to take on buying a fuel-efficient car when the Malibu is almost paid off.

Even getting a new job has its dangers. Brian has 13 years at State Farm - and a pension.

"That's one of the main drivers that's keeping me here," he said during a lunch break at his office. "I don't want to start from scratch somewhere else and maybe not even get a pension."

He said college was "not optional" for the girls. It's mandatory no matter what it costs.

"I try to imagine what's going to be best for my kids," he said. "Money right now? Or money at the end, when I'm going to be able to help them with college?"

"My wife will tell you money right now," he said, "and I'd say money at the end."

Dawn McCausland reentered the workforce as gas began biting into the budget. She works more than 25 hours a week from home as a freelance patent archivist.

The family spends $7,000 of gross income on school tuition, uniforms, books and activity fees. An additional $9,000 covers Brian's employee contribution to health insurance coverage for the family.

"It sure doesn't sound like a lot, but, jeez - it sure does go," McCausland said. "We're not living a lavish lifestyle, but it all goes to bills."

Dawn, who turns 40 this year, said she was "one of the poorest kids in school" growing up. By this age, she imagined, things would be easier.

"I did expect to have a beautiful house, a loving husband," she said. "But I wanted to be able to go to the store and buy school uniforms and not worry about 'OK, how many years can I get out of this?' "

Instead, she doesn't even fill the minivan gas tank.

"I just expected things to always be even keel," she said.

Seated beside her at their kitchen table, Brian shrugged his shoulders.

"It's America," he said. "You think you're always going to work hard and get ahead. And it's not always that way."