Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The difficulty of getting riders into the pool

Changing the status quo is going to take some prodding to
convince employers and their commuters of the benefits.

By TUX TURKEL, Staff Writer
December 23, 2007

Most Mainers rely on their cars to get to work. The dependence
is straining personal budgets, roads and the environment.

Things might be different, if half of all workers drove a distance
to an island connected by only one bridge.

That's the situation facing Hancock County's largest employer,
The Jackson Laboratory. It's why the lab now spends $50,000 a
year to subsidize commuter bus service to Bar Harbor, and
offers preferential parking to car poolers.

Even so, fewer than 15 percent of the lab's 1,250 employees
take advantage of the programs.

Maybe that will change, with new expanded bus service and
gasoline staying above $3 a gallon. But the lab's efforts to
promote alternative transportation suggest the challenges facing
an initiative announced last month byGov. John Baldacci.

Responding to high gasoline and heating costs, the governor set
up an energy emergency management plan that includes efforts
to get more Maine commuters out of their cars and trucks.
Baldacci also asked his cabinet to seek ways to adjust the
schedules of more than 12,000 state workers, to allow more
telecommuting, ride sharing and van pooling. He made a similar
pitch to business, starting with board members at the Maine
State Chamber of Commerce.

But it's going to take more than some prodding from the
governor to change the status quo. While some Maine employers
actively support alternative transportation, most have yet to
exploit the potential benefits, or do more than study and discuss
the issue.

Employers that embrace alternative transportation can, for
instance, save money on parking spaces and tap in to a larger
labor pool. But they'll have to overcome obstacles that include
the American love affair with auto travel, committing resources
to promoting alternatives and making adjustments in corporate

"More businesses need to be doing this because getting to work
is a huge issue for their employees," said Sue Moreau, a policy
specialist at the Maine Department of Transportation.

Interest in alternatives is growing, Moreau said, based on public
response over the past five weeks to free rides on local bus
lines. Ridership during Free Fare Friday, which ends this week, is
up 25 percent statewide over the same time last year. Riders
increased by 45 percent in Biddeford-Saco and 20 percent in

Moreau is anxious to see if ridership stays up this winter, after
the free promotions end. In the meantime, she's encouraging
companies to consider how both they and their workers can
benefit from reducing car use.

"Employees need to investigate what the options are," she said,
"and the state is ready to help them do that."

One way the state helps is through its Go Maine commuter
services program.


Go Maine matches workers and companies online with car and
van pool connections. It currently has 950 employers registered
with the program, with 397 active car pools.

Go Maine also manages a fleet of 13 vans carrying more than
150 workers daily. Seven operate from Portland to Augusta;
others connect with the capital from Lewiston-Auburn, Topsham
and Bangor. Go Maine has identified 15 more promising van
routes. Private vans listed with Go Maine also carry workers to
Bath Iron Works and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

One worker taking advance of the state-sponsored van is Tim

Leavitt had been driving from Augusta to his job on the Portland
waterfront for nearly 10 years. Earlier this year, Leavitt figures,
gasoline alone was costing nearly $70 a month, not including
turnpike tolls and maintenance.

Leavitt was lucky. He discovered the state was expanding the
commuter vans, organizing service from Augusta to Portland.

He's now one of nine riders who makes the daily trip, paying
$135 a month. Leavitt estimates he's saving roughly $150 a
month, compared to driving alone at current gasoline prices.

Leavitt, who works at Graybar Electric Co. on Commercial Street,
meets the van in Augusta at 6:30 a.m.

The van stops at the Maine Turnpike commuter parking lot in
Gardiner and arrives at Leavitt's workplace around 7:50 a.m. In
the afternoon, he meets the driver, who works nearby at Barber
Foods, at 4:30.

Leavitt and his company had to make some adjustments to
accommodate the van. Graybar's work day begins at 7:30 a.m.,
so Leavitt cut his lunch break to a half-hour. His manager has
been supportive of this arrangement, he said.

Many companies are supportive, when they understand the
benefits of ride sharing and van pools on their operations, said
Carey Kish, Go Maine's program manager. Companies that
support alternative transportation can draw from a larger labor
pool, he said.

People who live far from a job are more willing to take it or keep
it, if they can cut the cost of commuting. Rideshare workers also
are more likely to be on time and miss less work, because they
stick to predictable schedules.

Kish visits companies around Maine and talks to human
resources managers about the benefits of alternative
transportation. He has the most success when he can identify
someone with a personal stake in the issue.

"Finding a champion is important," he said. "You need a
champion, you need an employee to light the fire."


That spark is harder to generate at larger companies.

L.L. Bean has 4,000 year-round workers in Maine; two-thirds of
them work in Freeport. Aside from some informal ride sharing,
Bean has no sponsored vans or ride sharing. Years ago it had
reserved parking spaces for car pools, but they weren't well used
and reverted to open parking.

That may change next year, according to John Oliver, Bean's vice
president for public affairs, as part of a larger plan to reduce
Bean's impact on climate change.

"We know employee commuting is one area we can have an
impact on," he said.

Perhaps the best way to reduce the impact of commuting is to
stay home.

High-speed Internet connections make it possible for more
people to work away from their job sites. A 2006 study by the
Telework Coalition, which promotes telecommuting, identified
benefits ranging from reduced real estate costs to higher rates
of worker satisfaction. Telecommuting policies also allowed
many employees to stay on the job after Hurricane Katrina and
the World Trade Center attacks, the study found.

In Maine, state agencies have a written policy for setting up
telecommuting arrangements with employees. Issues include
home workplace ergonomics, confidentiality and how to assess

L.L. Bean has been considering whether customer service
representatives could work from home, Oliver said. But concerns
about meeting satisfaction standards and protecting customer
privacy have stalled that plan for now.

Telecommuting also has failed to gain much traction at The
Jackson Laboratory. The culture at the world-class genetics lab
encourages personal interaction among the researchers,
according to Chuck Hewett, the chief operating officer.

"We need our people to be here," he said.

But the lab is doing more than most Maine companies to get its
people to work without cars.

Bar Harbor's high housing costs contribute to the fact that
roughly half the lab's workers live off Mount Desert Island. Some
commute an hour or more, from Washington and Penobscot

The lab recently boosted its subsidy for commuter buses
operated by Downeast Transportation to $50,000 a year. Aided
by federal money, the increase supports four weekday trips
between Ellsworth and Bar Harbor, and has actually lowered
fares on other routes.

It's a great deal for the 138 regular riders; the weekly fare from
Bangor and Cherryfield dropped from $27 to $17.50.

This subsidy makes financial sense for The Jackson Laboratory.

Hewett figures that, including workers who leave their cars at
home for ride sharing, the programs remove up to 150 cars a
day from company parking lots. The cost of developing a new
asphalt parking space in Bar Harbor is more than $6,000, he
estimated, so the investment represents a big savings.

Hewett hopes the newly expanded bus service may add riders.
Gasoline prices appear to be the wild card, though; they may do
as much as anything business can do to motivate workers to
leave their cars at home. The faster gas go up, Hewett
observed, the more people choose alternatives.

"When we see a spike in prices is when we see the changes," he

Staff writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:


Copyright © 2007 Blethen Maine Newspapers

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Problem is, it is difficult to not have easy access to your vehicle, especially as a parent of young children. Watch NASCAR and carpooling will seem like a moot point. Talk about bad for the environment and gas guzzling.