Congestion clears a path for commuter programs
America’s commuters are going nowhere fast, placing increased pressure on transportation agencies to provide transit alternatives and promote their use. Commuter programs will have to gather speed if they are to make an impact on the nation’s growing congestion problems.
In a recent study of 68 urban areas, the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), based in College Station, Texas, estimated that the cost of traffic congestion — measured in lost time and wasted fuel — rose from $21 billion in 1982 to $78 billion in 1999. The costs go far beyond that, however.
“Congestion and bottlenecks damage air quality, slow commerce, increase energy consumption and threaten our quality of life,” said Mary Peters, administrator for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), before a House subcommittee in May. She attributed growing congestion to the fact that the nation’s highway capacity has not kept up with the growing number of drivers.
From 1980 to 2000, highway travel increased 80 percent, and the number of drivers increased 30 percent, according to FHWA. At the same time, highway capacity grew by only 2 percent.
The number of people driving to work alone is contributing to the problem. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of solo commuters rose 16 percent — from 84 million to 97 million — over the last 10 years. During the same period, the number of people carpooling and using public transportation held steady at 30 million.
Without the possibility of a boom in highway capacity, local transportation agencies must continue to address traffic congestion as a behavioral problem. Agencies in Arlington County, Va.; St. Louis; and Houston-Galveston are doing just that. Using advertising media, public relations pitches, Web sites and retail commuter stores, they are steering residents toward light rail and buses, carpools and vanpools, as well as bicycles and walking shoes.
Arlington County, Va.
When it comes to traffic, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is the third most congested region in the country, behind Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to TTI. Nevertheless, the Washington suburb Arlington County, Va., is breathing easier than its neighbors. “We don’t have the congestion problem that you see in the outer suburbs of Washington,” says Chris Hamilton, manager of the county’s Commuter Assistance Program (CAP).
Hamilton credits county planners with much of the county’s success in traffic control. “Our county planners insisted that the Metro (Metropolitan Washington’s subway line) follow Wilson Boulevard through Arlington,” Hamilton says. “This was an older area of Arlington, and they wanted the Metro to spur development. Furthermore, they required that the tallest buildings planned for Arlington be developed around the Metro stations.” He also credits the county’s aggressive promotion of alternative transportation.
Organized 10 years ago by the county’s Department of Public Works, CAP began as a ride-share agency and has expanded to promote alternative transportation and commuter services on a broad scale. Managed by Hamilton and operated by five contractors, the program has a budget of $3.1 million funded by Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grants as well as state, local and private money.
The Commuter Store, a chain of four stores located throughout downtown Arlington, is part of CAP’s offerings. It provides ride-matching services for carpoolers and guaranteed rides home for commuters without cars. It also sells tickets, tokens and passes for every local and regional transportation service offered in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
In addition to coordinating rides and purchasing tickets, store visitors can get information about HOV lanes, park and ride locations, and employer services related to commuting and telecommuting. A Mobile Commuter Store provides the same services to residents living far from the stores.
Offering similar services online, CAP operates two Web sites — www.commuterpage.com and www.commuterdirect.com — that present commuter news and manage ticket sales, respectively. The information site gets approximately 70,000 hits each month, and the e-commerce site is on track to sell more than $2 million in transit tickets this fiscal year. Hamilton estimates that CAP pays up to $150,000 per year to maintain and update the sites.
In addition to promoting alternative transportation directly to commuters, CAP is targeting area employers. In 1998, it hired locally based Arlington Transportation Partners to work with companies to establish incentive programs encouraging use of mass transit among employees.
The Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) stipulates that employers can offer commuter services as part of their benefits programs in exchange for federal tax breaks. For example, employers can purchase transit vouchers ($100 per month per employee) then sell the vouchers at discounted prices, or give them, to employees.
Employers deduct the cost of the vouchers as a business expense and pay no payroll taxes on the value. Employees use the vouchers to pay for mass transit services, but they are not required to pay income tax or FICA on the value of the benefit.
Since CAP instituted its employer program, more than 380 companies — representing 105,129 employees — have participated. That is 51 percent of Arlington County’s employment base.
CAP programs are promoted with an annual advertising budget of $350,000. Hamilton says the county is planning a promotion for property managers in apartment and condominium complexes. “The county has about 600 complexes with 50,000 units,” he says. “We are starting this on a small scale this year. The state has promised to review our results and consider funding if we find this productive.”
In Metropolitan St. Louis, the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council (EWGCC) oversees alternative transportation and commuter programs. Formed as a regional council of governments and a metropolitan planning organization, EWGCC relies on locally based Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT) to implement commuter solutions. “We sponsor transportation projects, and CMT implements them,” says Les Sterman, EWGCC executive director.
According to Sterman, CMAQ grants acquired by EWGCC and passed through to CMT fund the lion’s share of the region’s commuter programs. CMT uses the money to promote transit use throughout the region.
It also has used the money to develop a transit membership program. Transit users register for the program by paying a small fee and completing a form distributed by CMT at transit stations, offices and on the Web. Upon registering, members receive “Commuter Corner,” a bimonthly newsletter covering changes in the transit system and offering special promotions for members.
“We run three promotions a year, usually in May, September and January,” says Kim Cella, director of CMT. Last May’s promotion, “Breathe Easy On Your Ride To Work,” urged people to sign up for a drawing to win a year’s worth of transit passes.
To complement its transit promotions, CMT offers guaranteed rides home to commuters who use alternative transportation. “We hit on this idea a few years ago, and it works well,” says Thomas Shrout, CMT executive director.
Essentially, the “guaranteed ride” component ensures that commuters without cars can get home in case of an emergency. The employee pays his or her own cab fare to get home and invoices CMT, which reimburses 80 percent of the fare up to $40.
To be eligible for reimbursement, the employee must have the invoice approved by his employer. Furthermore, his employer must be enrolled as part of a CMT program to promote commuting incentives in the workplace. More than 100 employers (with approximately 60,000 employees) have enrolled.
Last October, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) ordered the Houston-Galveston region to make dramatic reductions in air pollution by 2007. The mandate stipulated that 10 percent of all Houston-Galveston companies with more than 50 employees would have to move employees into some form of alternative transportation. Responding to that requirement, the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC), a regional council of governments, began reviewing the area’s existing commuter program, Commute Solutions.
Established by HGAC in the early 1990s, Commute Solutions historically has encouraged commuters to reduce traffic congestion — and resulting air pollution — by busing, carpooling, vanpooling, telecommuting, biking and walking. However, HGAC is adjusting the program’s priorities to emphasize commuter choices that show the greatest potential for reducing congestion.
While continuing to promote telecommuting, biking and walking, the revamped Commute Solutions will place greater emphasis on vanpooling, carpooling and busing. HGAC plans to add an employer component by encouraging area companies to participate in the federal Commuter Choice Leadership Initiative. (See the sidebar below.)
By 2007, HGAC aims to add 700 vanpools to the 300 already operating in the region. It is jumpstarting ridership through promotional efforts; for example, in July, it launched a three-month campaign that pays the first month’s cost of any new vanpool formed under the Commute Solutions guidelines.
In addition to promoting vanpooling, HGAC has erected roadway signs giving commuters information about carpooling, and it has implemented pilot projects to identify additional transit service needs. “We identify areas in need of transit options and use CMAQ money to establish new routes,” says Andrew Howard, a transportation planner for HGAC. To date, the council has added two pilot routes. “Both of these routes have seen excellent ridership, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority is considering adding them to its regular routes,” Howard says.
Employers are significant players in meeting the TNRCC mandates. As a result, HGAC is contracting with a company to encourage participation in the federal Commuter Choice Leadership Initiative.
Over the next three years, the contractor will organize and conduct up to 10 seminars for employers. Through the seminars, employers will learn about the Commuter Choice Leadership Initiative; the benefits of offering commuter incentive packages; and the tax benefits of being a Commuter Choice participant. HGAC’s goal is to have 30 companies partnered with the initiative.
Howard notes that reducing congestion will accomplish only a portion of the Houston-Galveston’s pollution reduction goals. “Sixty percent of these reductions will be made by factories in the region,” he says. However, HGAC estimates that, if only 10 percent of commuters park their cars by 2007, automobile emissions would be cut by 1.8 tons per day.
Even as cities and counties increase efforts to change commuter behavior, most Americans still prefer driving their own cars to work. That will change only when drivers have enough options to make alternative transportation timely and convenient, says Stuart Anderson, executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based Association for Commuter Transportation.
“We often hear the phrase ‘Americans love their cars,’” Anderson says. “Our research into what commuters want tells us that Americans do not love their cars. What they love is convenience and options. If commuter options are shown to be convenient and realistic, Americans will choose them.”
By promoting alternative transportation to commuters and employers, local governments are expanding the reach of their traffic-reduction programs. With commuter stores, online purchasing options and guaranteed rides, they are making it easier than ever for commuters to leave their cars at home.
Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Commuter Choice Leadership Initiative
A joint project of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Commuter Choice Leadership Initiative works in one of two ways:
Employers can give employees vouchers — valued at up to $100 per month — to pay for mass transit or vanpool commuting. The employer deducts the cost of the vouchers as a business expense.
Although the employee vouchers represent a form of compensation, TEA-21 exempts employers from paying payroll taxes on those benefits. Similarly, employees pay no FICA or federal income tax on the vouchers and essentially receive a tax-free raise.
Employers can arrange for pre-tax payroll deductions that employees can use to pay for alternative transportation. Under the payroll-deduction program, an employee can allocate up to $100 per month of his salary to pay for alternative transportation. Neither the employer nor the employee pays taxes on the funds.
To qualify as a Commuter Choice employer, companies must meet the following standards:
They must provide at least three of the following: tax-free transit passes, tax-free vanpool benefits, telecommuting, and parking cash-out benefits (under which employees trade free parking provided by the employer for the cash equivalent and then use alternative transportation to commute.)
Choosing from a long menu provided by EPA and USDOT, employers must provide at least three commuter benefits such as ride sharing or carpool matching; preferred or reduced-cost parking for carpools and vanpools; and locker and shower facilities for employees who walk or bike to work.
They must distribute information about commuter benefits and services to employees and ensure that a certain percentage of employees uses the services.
They must guarantee rides home for participating employees in cases of emergency.