More area residents going the extra mile D.C. commuters find Baltimore affordable


James usually drives while Candace sleeps. Sometimes they talk or listen to the radio, or just watch the landscape whoosh by.

No matter how they pass the time, nearly every morning James Boonie and Candace Trotti negotiate the Baltimore-Washington Parkway en route to Washington, where they work.

Commuting has become a fact of life for Ms. Trotti, 21, and Mr. Boonie, 29, ever since the couple and their two children moved to the Hollins Market area of Baltimore from Virginia last month. But owning a three-bedroom house compensates for spending one and a half to two hours on the road each day.

"This is a real opportunity to get on our feet, to give our kids a nice yard to play in and a stable environment to grow up in," said Ms. Trotti, a secretary with the Internal Revenue Service. Noting that the couple pays only $583 per month for an $85,000 house, she added, "There's no way we could have afforded anything like this in Washington."

In many ways, the couple seemed fated to move to Baltimore. Previously, they'd been living with Ms. Trotti's parents in Burke, Va. But her parents, Bill and Virginia Trotti, who had fallen in love with Baltimore during repeated weekend visits to the city, decided to purchase a home in Catonsville earlier this year.

That left Ms. Trotti and Mr. Boonie, an assistant to the U.S. secretary of education, no choice but to look around for new accommodations. Baltimore, with its more affordable housing, seemed an ideal location for them as well.

With housing prices often 20 to 40 percent cheaper than in the nation's capital, the Baltimore area has become an attractive place to live for many Washington workers.

"We've been seeing people move up here from the Washington area for some time, and I think we'll start to see even more," said Fletcher R. Hall, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. "The ability to maintain the salary one wants, but still be able to get lower-cost housing, certainly makes Baltimore attractive for someone who doesn't mind the commute."

The new downtown baseball stadium, Mr. Hall said, might draw even more people to the city. "People will come up for ballgames and they'll decide to live here and work in D.C.," he predicted.

The Light Street office of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn receives approximately 40 to 50 inquiries annually from Washingtonians who are interested in moving to such neighborhoods as Federal Hill, Canton or Otterbein, according to Linda Morgan, an associate broker at the office. About 10 percent of these prospective buyers, many of whom are attorneys or government workers, actually settle on homes, Ms. Morgan said.

"People go to places like Federal Hill and Otterbein because they want to stick with neighborhoods where houses have mostly been redone and where they'll have easier access to I-95," said Ms. Morgan, who noted that the number of those Washingtonians looking for residences in Baltimore has doubled within the past five years.

Some contend, however, that the trend of Washingtonians moving to Baltimore has peaked.

"The [Washington] buyers aren't out there as much as they used to be," said Alex Smith, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate. Mr. Smith said he began to notice a drop-off in all city buyers, including Washington buyers, last November. He attributed the change both to the faltering economy and to the end of the "young" baby boom -- people in their mid-20s. He also observed that "people aren't quite as willing to make the drive to get a good price anymore," although he's not sure why.

Whether or not people are moving to Baltimore from D.C. in droves, many do travel south to work. A 1988 survey conducted by the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments showed that approximately 75,000 workers who live in the Baltimore area work in Washington or its suburbs.

Gene Bandy, an official with the Transportation Planning Division for the council, expects to see at least a "slight increase" in those numbers when the results of the 1990 census are made public. That number will probably double over the next 20 years, Mr. Bandy predicted.

"At the moment, the D.C. region is growing a little faster than the Baltimore region, and the pull of jobs in that region is attracting people to make the move [to work there]," Mr. Bandy said.

Commuting by train -- a ride of less than a hour between cities -- seems to be gaining in popularity as workers tire of fighting traffic.

To accommodate growing numbers of train commuters, the MARC train service, which runs two commuter lines between Baltimore and Washington, expanded its Penn-North line to include stops in Harford County and Cecil County this May. Approximately 8,269 people use the train service daily -- a jump of nearly 300 percent from 1987, according to Helen Dale, manager of public relations for the Mass Transit Administration, which operates the train service under the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Some commuters may find their route to Washington even more convenient if a high-speed rail project continues to make its way through Congress.

On Sept. 17, the Senate approved $500,000 for a feasibility study of a Baltimore-Washington magnetic levitation high-speed rail system, otherwise known as maglev.

Such trains, which hover above a track on a magnetic field, could whisk riders from Baltimore to Washington in about 15 minutes, according to John Steele, press secretary for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., a strong advocate of the system.

If the system continues to receive congressional approval, "there's no technological reason why, if everything moves on schedule, a system couldn't be up and running by the year 2000," said Mr. Steele. Eventually, it could extend as far north as Boston.

High-speed rail systems are already in use in such countries as France, Japan and England.

A high-speed rail system could change the ways of such inveterate motorists as Barry Faber.

A Washington attorney who lives in Federal Hill, Mr. Faber almost always drives his Nissan Pulsar to work, largely because he saves time.

The complete commute by train -- including getting to the station, taking the Washington Metro and walking the rest of the way to his office -- takes about an hour and a half. Driving takes about 55 minutes, said Mr. Faber, who purchased his Federal Hill home in May 1990 with his then-fiancee, Susan Valis. (The couple married last November.)

"I don't mind the wait so much in the morning, but at night, I just want to get home," he said.

Because Mr. Faber begins his workday earlier and ends it later than most commuters, he misses most of the heavy traffic on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

The Fabers ended up in Baltimore for the typical reasons: Housing was cheaper and Ms. Valis wanted to be close to her Baltimore family. Here, the couple was able to purchase a three-bedroom town house with a view of the Inner Harbor for under $250,000 -- an amount of money that might have yielded only a condominium in the Washington area.

Still, commuting isn't trouble-free. Mr. Faber finds that he frequently wants to socialize with friends from work. But "if I want to do something on the weekend, it's hard to drive down there, or to get them to come up here," he said.

On the whole, though, the situation is less arduous than it might appear.

"I don't think I could do this forever, and I wouldn't want to do it for 20 years," said Mr. Faber. "But I find it less problematic than most people seem to think it is."

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