Sharing the road, and the ride: Van pools saving money, planet

More than 100 people are now participating in a government-supported pilot program that encourages l

Every weekday morning, handfuls of commuters are gathering at places like the Schenectady Home Depot or a parking lot in Wilton to van-pool to work together and beat high gas prices.

More than 100 people are now participating in a government-supported pilot program that encourages leaving personal vehicles behind and van-pooling to work.

“One vehicle for five people saves a lot of money,” said Jennifer Whiting of Schenectady, who pools 21 miles to her job as a project assistant at the Watervliet Arsenal.

She estimated that she’s saving about $70 a month on gasoline alone and also saving on auto insurance and wear and tear on her car.

Just less than two years after the van-pool program was launched with a $224,000 state grant, there are now 18 van pools and more than 100 participants in the Capital Region. Officials say they’re pleased.

“It’s a start. We’re taking 100 vehicles off the road,” said Jesse Kafka, a business development executive with the van company, VPSI Inc. of Troy, Mich.

Nationwide, VPSI has more than 5,000 vans on the road. Kafka said interest in the program has increased as gasoline prices have risen to above $3.50 a gallon.

“Just recently, there’s been a lot of interest from people mentioning gas prices,” Kafka said.

Today, he said, there are 11 pools involving employees at the Watervliet Arsenal, where word has spread about the benefits. There are also six van pools at the Stratton Air National Guard base in Glenville and one that runs from Saratoga County to the Patroon Creek Corporate Park in Albany.

The largest number of pool participants live in Saratoga County, Kafka said.

“Our vans and our van-poolers are our two primary ways of advertising,” he said.

another option

The Capital Region van-pool program was launched in July 2009, administered by the Capital District Transportation Authority, the region’s mass transit agency.

CDTA runs the region’s bus fleet, but officials there say they realize that large commuter buses may not be right for every mass transit situation.

“The reason we’re getting into van pools is we have to increase mobility options. Sometimes buses aren’t the best solution,” said CDTA spokeswoman Margo Janack.

In one example, a recent study conducted for the town of Malta found that conventional bus service probably isn’t practical for workers who will be going to the GlobalFoundries computer chip plant.

The plant, scheduled to open next year, will employ at least 1,200 people. But the study found that the fact that they’ll be coming from many different directions makes bus service impractical.

Both CDTA and VPSI say they’ve reached out to GlobalFoundries about van-pooling as an alternative.

“We think if they will take a little bit of leadership it will be a great success for them,” Kafka said.

GlobalFoundries is at least listening.

“I know we are working on some possible programs here at Fab 8 that could include carpool, van-pool, ride-share programs, etc., but we have not finalized or launched anything yet,” said GlobalFoundries spokesman Travis Bullard. “So we are interested in these options and investigating them, but nothing to report yet.”

Under the program, participants in each pool split the monthly cost. They lease the van from VPSI, which maintains it and provides a debit card to pay for gasoline.

For now, a $224,000 New York State Energy Research and Development Authority grant is subsidizing some of the costs for most of the vans, but the subsidies will expire this summer.

The Capital District Transportation Committee, which controls federal transportation funding, has allocated another $100,000 specifically for developing van pools in Saratoga County.

Van pools have environmental benefits that make them worth government support, said Deb Stacey, a principal planner at CDTC.

Through March, she said, the local van pools started since 2009 had saved 760,000 driving miles, or about 30,000 gallons of gasoline. Each gallon of gas not burned saves nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, she said.

“The amount of greenhouse gas we’re reducing is significant,” Stacey said.

The environmental benefits are at least part of the appeal to participants.

“As far as the members of the pool, the No. 1 thing is the dollars, but the green part is nice, too,” said Mike Rhodes, 55, a production control engineer at the Watervliet Arsenal. “If we have one van on the road instead of six vehicles, that’s a benefit.”

Rhodes lives in Porter Corners, in northern Saratoga County, 40 miles from Watervliet. He’s the pool coordinator, meaning he takes the van home at night (but he isn’t allowed to use it except for commuting).

Each morning, Rhodes said he meets the other five members of the pool at Exit 15 and they then take the van, leaving their personal vehicles behind.

He said the pool members pay about $60 per month each, while he said driving to work from Glens Falls or northern Saratoga County might now cost $80 to $100 per week.

As federal employees, those who work at the arsenal or Stratton National Guard Base qualify to have the van cost deducted from their taxable income, providing another incentive. Kafka said private companies have the option of offering the same benefit.

Kafka said VPSI’s rule of thumb is that people need to be commuting at least 15 miles to make the minor inconveniences of ride-sharing, like waiting for other riders, worthwhile.

Whiting said another key to successful van-pooling is “getting the right people to ride with you.”

Rhodes said personality conflicts are one of the biggest issues that can arise in a van pool, and sometimes situations have to be worked out. In his pool, they’ve worked out a solution to the perennial question in every vehicle with more than one person:

“We rotate drivers by the day,” he said. “If it’s your turn to drive, you get to pick the radio station.”

People interested in learning more about the Capital Region van pool program can find information on CDTA’s website or by calling 1-800-VAN-POOL.

Categories: Schenectady County

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