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NYC's 'extreme commuting' costs getting out of control

Commuters arriving at Grand Central Terminal
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Commuters arriving at Grand Central Terminal

Richard Walsh spends four hours a day or more commuting from a New York City suburb to his job in Manhattan.

Five days a week, he drives to a Rockland County, N.Y., park-and-ride and boards a bus to the Port Authority terminal in midtown. Then he walks more than a mile to his information technology job downtown, shunning the subway to save money.

His physically grueling commute, which he shares with tens of thousands of others in the region, costs him about $400 a month. It's a tough pill to swallow as family budgets are squeezed by higher payroll taxes and a sluggish economy.

"The bus part is an hour and 20 minutes," said Walsh, 37. "Sometimes I have to stand for that long because there are no seats. The heat doesn't always work and the bus breaks down at least every two to three months." His bus doesn't even have a bathroom, he added.

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Walsh sticks with the rigorous commute, however, even with transit prices going up almost every year. His current trek is actually the least expensive option.

"My wife works 10 minutes from the house, and we have two kids. One of us has to be close to them, so one of us had to make a sacrifice, " he said.

Walsh has tried looking for IT positions closer to home, but jobs locally are scarce and salaries don't compare to those in the big city.

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Walsh is clearly not alone.

A study last year from New York University's Wagner School crowned Manhattan as the country's top destination for "extreme commuting"—defined as work trips taking 90 minutes or more each way—and said that one in eight workers in Manhattan is an "extreme commuter."

Recent figures from the U.S. Census back that up. About one-third of workers spend more than an hour each way commuting to the Big Apple; more than half have commutes of 90 minutes or more.

The U.S. Department of Labor finds that, on average, people spend more than $1,100 a year to commute to Manhattan on public transportation, while drivers shell out more than $2,200 for gasoline and motor oil. That figure doesn't include tolls or other expenses.

"The key thing that New Yorkers have to understand is that you can describe the structure of cities in America into two groups: There is New York, and there are the other cities," said Alan Pisarski, a transportation consultant and an author of a series of national commuting studies.

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Pisarski, who wrote "Commuting in America," said workers commute to Manhattan from about 30 counties in the tristate area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut). People come from as far as Delaware and Pennsylvania, having moved there for a lower cost of living. he added.

"My sense is that New Yorkers have a kind of stoic attitude, and they are sort of proud that they can cope with the pain and the grief and annoyance of it," Pisarski said. "I am amazed they are as tolerant as they are."

It's not much better for those living closer to Manhattan.

Though Tami Wirtheim lives in Queens, her commute often takes more than an hour.

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The 34-year old commercial mortgage analyst commutes on the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station in midtown, where she boards a subway to the tip of lower Manhattan. If she doesn't time her route perfectly, her commute can take nearly two hours.

"I now pay $210 for my monthly rail card. It was $190 a year ago. It's definitely gotten more expensive," said Wirtheim, who gets a pretax allowance to cover a portion of her commuting costs. She said it's not enough and that every dollar of her commuting money should be pretax.

But, for now Wirtheim is staying with her routine. The cost of living closer to Manhattan, she said, is far more stinging than spending time and money commuting to work every day.

—By CNBC's Stephanie Landsman. Follow her on Twitter @StephLandsman

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