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Alternative commuting gaining traction, slowly: Discounted vanpool fees offered during I-70 project

February 5, 2007

Only road contractors, Ruth Reiman and the Devil himself are welcoming interstate reconstruction that could cause mass chaos for east-side commuters this year.

For Reiman and her team at Central Indiana Commuter Services, the $175 million Interstate 70 project starting Feb. 25 might be the best recruiting tool since stratospheric gasoline prices a year ago.

"I'm just waiting for them to hit the first lane closure," said Reiman, executive director of federally funded CICS.

CICS-rhymes with kicks-hopes to lure lone motorists out of their cars and into passenger vans by offering those affected by the "Super 70" project a discount on monthly fees to participate in a van pool.

The discount of up to $50 a month for each rider applies only to those who form a new van pool, with a minimum of six riders. The discount is good until December, when the road project is to end.

Generally, vanpoolers each pay an average of $100 to $150 a month, including gas. That amount is usually less for federal workers eligible for subsidies and for private-sector workers when employers deduct the cost pretax from paychecks.

Existing van pools travel downtown from Anderson, Bloomington and Cloverdale.

The 3-year-old CICS encourages carand vanpooling, bus riding, and biking and walking to work. It has about 4,500 commuters in its database, which matches those who want to share a ride.

The ultimate goal is to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.

As for Super 70-inspired van pools, "I would be thrilled if we could get six new ones on the road," Reiman said.

If that seems like a modest goal, consider that Indianapolis is to alternative transportation what Rosie O'Donnell is to Miss Manners. There are signs of progress, though-at least for alternative transportation.

CICS has signed up more than 125 area employers who've agreed to push commuting alternatives to motorists. Most successful has been the downtown Hilton, with 19 percent of its employees using alternative transportation-mostly Indy-Go buses.

CICS credits the Hilton's human resources head, Corinna Duncan, who said she preaches transportation alternatives starting at employee orientation.

The Hilton also bought bus passes in bulk from IndyGo, which knocked roughly $16 a month off a $50 a month bus fare. It also deducts the fares from employee paychecks on a pretax basis, further reducing the cost.

While many hospitality workers are of lower income and more inclined to ride the bus, there is a misperception that so-called professionals aren't willing to use transit alternatives, said Reiman, pointing to Indianapolis law firm Barnes & Thornburg.

The second-best effort among employers last year was at the giant Indianapolis firm, where 9.4 percent of its 450 downtown employees carpooled or chose other commuting alternatives.

"Part of it obviously was gas prices. Part of it was downtown parking costs," said Laura R. Miller, the law firm's personnel administrator, who has been promoting options through CICS. "I've sent out emails and then I go out headhunting."

Some of the employees organized themselves.

Cathy Barnard is one of three people in a car pool from the Greenwood area, meaning she leaves her car at home roughly two weeks each month. The carpoolers split the parking costs.

"Each one of us in our car pool is saving $80 a month in parking," said Barnard, who has yet to calculate savings in gas and wear-and-tear on her car.

Carpooling is not without complications. If Barnard has a doctor's appoint- : ment, for example, she drives alone Same for if one of the carpoolers has to work irregular hours.

"You have to be flexible. You can't just say, 'It's a good day [to go home].' You can't leave early," Barnard said.

Carpoolers who sign up through CICS' database are eligible for a free ride home if they get sick, courtesy of a taxicab.

Some of the fastest growth in alternative commuting is by federal workers, such as those who vanpool from the Anderson area to the Army finance center at the former Fort Benjamin Harrison. Reiman said federal benefits get most of the credit. Until federal agencies working with CICS pointed out those benefits, many workers didn't know they existed.

It's hard to quantify whether CICS has boosted ridership at IndyGo, which for years has struggled with declining passenger counts. But the number of IndyGo riders grew 4.3 percent last year, said spokeswoman Ronnetta Spalding.
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