SLO County ‘super-commuters’ trade hours in the car for a life on the Central Coast

Every morning at 5:45 a.m., Rena Salamacha leaves her Los Osos home to begin her hour-and-a-half commute.

Most days, it’s still dark outside when she packs her lunch, finishes her coffee and hits the road for King City, where she works as the chief information officer at George L. Mee Memorial Hospital.

Salamacha’s daily drive takes her inland on Highway 41 and then north on Highway 101 into the Salinas Valley.

“It’s like ‘Groundhog Day,’” she said. “It’s the same routine every single day.”

Salamacha is among the 2 to 3 percent of San Luis Obispo County residents classified as “extreme commuters” — those who travel 90 minutes or more to work every day.

In a region where the average resident’s trip to work takes 22 minutes, these commuters are definite outliers. But they say the drive is worth it — they get to advance their careers while enjoying all that a Central Coast lifestyle has to offer.

“They tell me I’m nuts,” Salamacha said. “Everybody does. My girlfriends have no idea how I do it.”

Commuting in SLO County

Most commuting in the region takes place between various parts of San Luis Obispo County and northern Santa Barbara County. The San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG) keeps track of where commuters travel from to jobs in San Luis Obispo, the county’s employment hub.

More than 32,000 employees report to work in the city, according to 2014 data. About 44 percent of those employees commute from somewhere else, with most coming from cities in the North and South County regions of the county, or from Santa Maria.

Atascadero and Los Osos — two areas known as bedroom communities — unsurprisingly send the most commuters to San Luis Obispo.

SLOCOG doesn’t keep track of super-commuters who travel far outside the county. Because their data includes Cal Poly students, researchers filter out those who work far away from the county to exclude alumni who may have moved elsewhere.

U.S. Census Bureau data, however, does include statistics on length of commute.

According to the 2016 numbers, 125,439 people commuted to work in all of San Luis Obispo County. Of that total, 4,056 — or 3 percent — traveled 90 minutes or more, qualifying them as super-commuters. The majority, 53 percent, commuted 20 minutes or less.

‘Definitely worth it’

Salamacha, 43, started making her lengthy commute about nine years ago. She moved to Los Osos from the Central Valley after she married her husband, although she initially worked at French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo.

But when she got the job at Mee Memorial, she decided to make the trip rather than move again, especially because her daughter had just started attending Morro Bay High School.

“There’s no way I was going to uproot her again,” Salamacha said.

Rena Salamacha finishes her first cup of coffee at her home in Los Osos before she leaves for her commute to Mee Memorial Hospital in King City, where she’s an administrator. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

So Salamacha started making her three-hour-a-day drives, which she said she uses as a time to de-stress and make calls.

Most days, she wakes up around 4:30 a.m. to get ready for her day. Her husband, a general contractor, usually gets up around the same time and makes Salamacha coffee before she leaves.

Salamacha starts work around 7 a.m. and gets home by 5:30 p.m. or so. There’s usually not a lot of traffic, so she “just sets cruise control and goes.”

Salamacha used to carpool to King City with two other Los Osos co-workers, but neither of them could stomach the long drive. One took a job in Arroyo Grande and another moved to Paso Robles to make the daily trip more manageable.

She said a round trip to work and back home is 160 miles, meaning she likely drives slightly less than 40,000 miles per year. Salamacha typically spends about $120 per week to fill up the Honda Civic she uses for her daily drives.

“The commute gets to a lot of people,” she said. “You can only do it for so long.”

Over the years, the drive has given her less time at home, but Salamacha said working so far away is “definitely worth it.” She makes more money than she would in the San Luis Obispo County area and has been able to advance her career.

“To put it bluntly, it’s the pay,” Salamacha said, explaining why she continues working so far from where she lives. “Now that my daughter’s out of the house, we’ve become accustomed to a certain lifestyle.”

‘The best decision I ever made’

Brenda Kong, an Arroyo Grande resident who works in Merced, started making her extreme commute about three years ago.

She visited a friend on the Central Coast and decided she wanted to live near the ocean, even though her financial services business is based hundreds of miles away.

“Have you ever been to the Central Valley?” Kong said jokingly. “The winters are cold and the summers are hot.”

Kong, 60, makes the three-hour drive to her office every Monday and stays with her elderly mother during the week. She drives about 33,000 miles per year and estimated she spends about $350 per month on gas.

Her drive to Merced takes her up Highway 101, then east on Highway 46 to Highway 41 to Highway 99. Kong said she always stops at a Starbucks in Kettleman City for coffee — she now knows the baristas by name.

Kong works four 10-hour days in Merced and then drives back to Arroyo Grande on Thursday night.

AG Commute016
Brenda Kong commutes from her home in Arroyo Grande to an insurance business she owns in Merced. Kong makes the three-hour drive to her office every Monday and stays with her elderly mother during the week. She works a four-day week and returns on Thursday night. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“When I see the ocean, I’m telling you, it makes me so happy,” she said.

Kong said she’s considered moving her office to the coast, but most of her clients are in the Central Valley.

“It is that personal touch that I provide, even though I could do most of it on the internet,” she said. “Because you’re dealing with people’s money.”

Kong initially rented rooms when she started spending time on the Central Coast, but eventually bought her condo in 2014. During weekends, she loves outdoor activities, like trail running. She even recently took up salsa dancing.

“I feel like I have the best of both worlds,” she said. “It just works for me right now. Some people think I’m crazy, but I’m pretty happy.”

‘It’s a quality of life thing’

For Ed Moore, commuting from Paso Robles to Oakland twice a week has allowed his children to grow up with a sense of community.

Moore, 56, the general engineering division manager for Monterey Mechanical Co., moved to the Central Coast from Southern California to work on a wastewater treatment plant project in the area.

This type of contracting work means employees move around quite a bit — Moore said he and his family moved around California and Arizona 15 times in 20 years before he began his commute.

The family eventually moved again, but kept their house in Paso Robles. After Moore’s son started high school in 2000, the family decided to remain on the Central Coast, meaning Moore would need to commute to the Bay Area.

“We realized then it was important to stay in one place,” Moore said.

So he created a schedule that’s allowed him to stay in Paso Robles for part of the week and Oakland for the other part. Moore now oversees employees on job sites and has been commuting twice weekly for 17 years.

Ed Moore, left in the blue hard hat, at work on a wastewater treatment plant construction site in San Mateo. Courtesy Ed Moore

He drives to Oakland early on Monday mornings, stays overnight in a rented apartment and drives home Tuesday evening. Moore then drives back to the Bay Area on Wednesday morning, staying through Friday, when he comes home for the weekend.

Moore drives about 50,000 miles every year, but his company provides him with a car and gas card, so he doesn’t have to pay most of his transportation costs.

He said the schedule is flexible and made it possible for him to coach his four children’s soccer teams and attend their swim meets and musical performances. Whenever practices or games were on different days, Moore would shift his schedule to accommodate them.

Three of his kids have since graduated from Cal Poly, and the fourth currently attends Fresno Pacific University.

Plus, Bay Area housing costs are so expensive that many of Moore’s co-workers live in Tracy or other towns on the outskirts of the region, which makes their commutes nearly as long as his. And because he and his wife bought their house in 1995, they got a good deal on their property.

“We couldn’t get something like that up here (in Oakland),” Moore said. “So it’s a quality of life thing, too.”

Now that all of his kids are out of the house, Moore said he and his wife, who works for Weight Watchers, have considered looking for a place farther north. But they also enjoy living closer to Southern California, as they now have grandchildren in Glendora.

“It works out,” he said. “We like where we live, and it’s been a good place to raise the kids.”

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseymholden

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