Every weekday morning, Jeff Hensley leaves his home in Aztec and joins thousands of other commuters heading north on U.S. Highway 550 toward Colorado, where he works as a customer-service manager at Stoneage Waterblast Tools. On his way to work, he passes his sister, Tami Jantz, coming the other direction from her home south of Durango.
The commute gets old, says Jantz, a middle school teacher in Aztec, but the fourth-generation Durangoan said she couldnt imagine living anywhere else.
The siblings are among a growing number of commuters who leave or enter La Plata County each day. Between 2002 and 2010, the percentage of employed workers in the county who commuted to jobs outside the county increased from 13.5 percent to 24.1 percent. The percentage of local workers who commute into the county has grown from 13.2 percent to 27 percent during that time.
The largest proportion of those commuters are driving from and to San Juan County, N.M., according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
The rise in commuters, especially between those two counties, has meant more traffic on the states highways, more money exchanged across state lines and a greater integration of regional communities.
Who are the commuters?
Hensley moved to New Mexico because he and his wife couldnt afford to buy a home in La Plata County. The house they settled on in New Mexico was one-third the price they would have paid near Durango, Hensley said.
That was 19 years ago, but differences in housing prices between the two counties remains large. In San Juan County, the median sale price for the first three months of 2013 was $164,450, according to the San Juan County Board of Realtors. In La Plata County, the median price was almost double that $304,900 for the first quarter of 2013.
The commuters coming into the county tend to be younger than the workers commuting out of the county, and, compared to those entering the county each morning, a larger percentage of workers commuting out of the county earn more than $40,000 per year.
The data make sense within the natural-gas and oil industry, where a lot of the higher-level managers and operators live in La Plata County and commute to New Mexico offices, said Russ Knight, an operations superintendent with WPX Energy. Knight, a La Plata County native, lives south of Bayfield and drives to WPXs Aztec office every morning.
The people most likely to commute in and out of La Plata County are those who work in the manufacturing, utilities, transportation, natural-gas and oil, and mining sectors.
Traffic and its impacts
Traffic counts kept by the Colorado Department of Transportation reflect the growing number of commuters on the states highways. Between 2002 and 2012, weekday traffic between New Mexico and La Plata County on U.S. Highway 550 increased about 14 percent, according to average daily traffic counts. The number was even higher in 2008 before the economic recession when the number of cars on the road was up about 34 percent from 2002.
Current and projected commuter numbers have spurred major expansion projects on U.S. 550 that will continue until the thoroughfare eventually becomes a four-lane highway from Durango south to the state line, said Nancy Shanks, spokeswoman with CDOT.
More cars on the road also produce increased greenhouse-gas emissions. If every car driving past CDOTs traffic counter near the state line in 2012 was commuting the distance between Durango and Farmington, those cars would have produced almost 53,000 metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent last year. Thats equal to the amount of emissions produced from the energy use of 2,727 homes for one year.
Follow the money
The flow of money between Northwest New Mexico and Southwest Colorado is just as noticeable as the train of commuters.
Ubrew, a home-brew store in Farmington, receives about 25 percent of its business from Colorado customers, co-owner Linda Cossom said.
And this January, Durango Party Rental opened a second office in Farmington because the business was receiving calls from clients in Bloomfield, Aztec and Farmington, and wanted to better serve them, owner Jon Sigillito said.
A recent study reinforced this free movement of money between state lines. Using the dollar bill-tracking website, www.wheregeorge.com, theoretical physicist Dirk Brockmann traced the flow of dollar bills throughout the United States. On the map, the state line between Northwest New Mexico and Southwest Colorado is virtually nonexistent.
Retail-leakage studies completed in 2011 show La Plata County residents spend between $90 million and $290 million outside the county. About $40 million in La Plata County money is estimated to end up in general retail stores such as department stores and supercenters in Farmington, according to an analysis by Economic & Planning Systems Inc.
But the equation works the other way, too, with New Mexico residents making up a crucial consumer base that helps keep many local restaurants and shops afloat, especially during slow tourism months, said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata Economic Development Alliance. Almost 30 percent of sales in La Plata County, for example, come from out-of-county income, according to Economic & Planning Systems study.
A boon for companies
The growing interconnectedness between La Plata County and San Juan County means the two economies can increasingly be considered part of one broad labor market, Zalneraitis said. La Plata County tends to have an older, well-educated workforce while Farmington has a larger pool of blue-collar employees, so the two can complement each other and reduce each communitys individual weaknesses.
If were talking to a (prospective) company that says they need a good blue-collar workforce, we can say weve got that in our labor shed and people dont mind commuting, Zalneraitis said.
Ezra Lee, owner of local gas and oil field service company Crossfire, said the firm has recruited many of its human resources and accounting employees from Fort Lewis College and the Durango area, while many of the companys field personnel come from San Juan Colleges School of Energy in Farmington.
Considering the two economies as one also means there are more colleges, universities and hospitals counted inside the economic area, all of which are important assets for companies, Zalneraitis said.
Its good to have two towns this different this close together, he said.