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Tuesday, April 26, 2005 | This is part two in a three-part series on commuter traffic. Read part one.

Ed Duffy pulls his leased eight passenger van into the Eastlake Vons parking lot every weekday morning at around 6:10 a.m. Five minutes later, the materials engineer pulls out of the parking lot drive with seven co-workers from Naval Air Station North Island, who have chosen to commute the 17 miles from Chula Vista to Coronado together rather than drive alone.

On a recent Friday, the ride was comfortable and relaxed with plenty of leg room. Some passengers read while others sat quietly. The radio played non-offensive jazz music at an equally non-offensive volume. The driver picks the music. Otherwise there are no strict rules about topics of conversation or who gets to ride shotgun. The riders are here to relieve stress not to pile it on. They don’t socialize outside the van, though they stopped at Starbucks once because they saw an ad for free donuts.

They are just a few of the thousands of San Diegans who are responding affirmatively to their employer’s alternative transportation programs. The San Diego Association of Governments estimates that approximately 4,000, or less than 1 percent of the county’s 1.3 million workers ride in vanpools daily. By comparison, the 2000 Census found that 13 percent, or more than 176,000 workers carpool while more than 990,000, or 74 percent of workers, drive alone. Another 5 percent walks or cycles while 3 percent use mass transit and 4 percent work at home.

Vanpoolers cite a long list of benefits: less wear and tear on their own cars, no stress and congenial company. Add to that list the fact that – thanks to generous subsidies – the van lease is often free or a minimal cost to its riders.

Employers and employees also save money through programs that enable transportation expenses to be taken out of pre-tax payroll deductions. And everyone benefits from having fewer vehicles on the road. Traffic congestion is increasing in urban centers across the country, occurring through longer portions of the day and delaying more goods and travelers than ever before, according to the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. The institute’s 2004 Urban Mobility Report found that in 2002 congestion cost more than $63 billion nationwide, 3.5 billion hours of lost time due to delays, and 5.7 billion gallons of fuel wasted in stop-and-go traffic. The report is based on studies of transportation data collected in 85 urban areas from 1982 through 2002.

Congestion in San Diego is increasing

Add to these figures the current high-cost of gas – which averages $2.23 per gallon nationwide and $2.62 per gallon in San Diego, according to the Auto Club of Southern California – and you have a ready-made advertisement for alternative transportation.

The vanpool vendor VPSI provides the Chula Vista-based pool with a credit card to cover fuel expenses and takes care of all maintenance. The riders are billed for gasoline in their monthly billing statement, which is typically paid a month in advance. SANDAG provides a $400-a-month subsidy to each vanpool, which many employers choose to supplement. Employees at NAS North Island receive up to $105 per month for vanpooling and $58 a month for a mass transit pass to ride the bus or trolley – the maximum amounts allowed by the federal government.

According to Tom Wall, who administers the transportation incentive program at NAS North Island, vanpooling has reduced the number of vehicles entering the installation by about 400. “That’s a loose number because of people’s schedules,” Wall said. But it’s significant because parking is at a premium.

Win-Win

“If you’re trying to get someone who lives in Chula Vista to work in Oceanside, the drive is horrendous,” said Toni Freeman, a benefits associate at Biogen Idec, which offers its 875 employees a $105-per-month subsidy to use mass transit and will pay 50 percent of employee vanpool costs.

Some of San Diego’s largest employers like Biogen IDEC, the University of California, San Diego and Science Applications International Corp. provide private shuttles to their campuses from the nearest Coaster and bus stations. Many companies also allow flexible working schedules to help employees avoid traffic, or encourage bicycling or telecommuting.

SAIC initiated its program in 1998 because of a parking deficit. Now just under 300 of the company’s 3,000 headquarters staff ride to work in vanpools or carpools, on a bicycle or use mass transit. On-site bike lockers and a fitness center make it easier to leave the car at home.

“We don’t have a parking problem now and we have more people on campus then we had then,” said Debra Gutzmer, SAIC’s manager of facilities planning and client services.

“As an employee-owned company, SAIC has a vested interest in employee quality of life issues,” Gutzmer said. “An employee who arrives to work stressed after a long commute is less productive.”

Alternative transportation is cheaper than parking structures

“We’re finding it more cost-effective to provide alternatives,” Snee said.

Qualcomm recently began partnering with Flexcar to position several cars on the company’s campus to encourage employees to leave their cars at home. Flexcar is a car-sharing vendor that sells its members limited use of cars parked in their neighborhood or transit hubs for a monthly fee that covers gas, maintenance, parking, insurance and 24-hour service. The car-sharing model is becoming increasingly popular in urban centers among people who prefer not to keep their own car, but need wheels occasionally for grocery shopping or errands.

The arrangement is free to Qualcomm, which negotiated a deal that gives employees who want to join Flexcar access to the cars for $8 an hour and waives the standard fees. In exchange, Qualcomm promised Flexcar a certain volume of monthly business. The cars eliminate one of the most common excuses people offer about why they don’t use mass transit: because they need their car during the day for doctor’s appointments, parent-teacher conferences or occasional work-related meetings off-site.

“Qualcomm is saying, ‘Here’s a car you can use,’” said William del Valle, general manager of Flexcar’s San Diego operation.

Qualcomm also maintains an internal Web site to provide employees with commuter resources such as traffic updates, where to find the best gas prices, bicycle-to-work maps, trolley connections, Coaster and bus schedules, and carpool and vanpool options.

BD Biosciences Pharmigen’s ridesharing subsidies have earned it the distinction of being one of four San Diego employers to be recognized by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency as one of the “Best Workplaces for Commuters.”

The program recognizes more than 1,100 employers nationwide who are doing something to get employees off the road during peak traffic hours. Also making the list in San Diego are SANDAG, San Diego Air Pollution Control District and Sony Online Entertainment.

Tomorrow, part three: Voice explores the growth of alternative transportation vendors in San Diego.

Catherine MacRae Hockmuth is a freelance writer in Chula Vista.

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