By Wade Coggeshall
— Gas prices may be dropping, but that won't remain the case forever. Which means when they start increasing again, motorists will start looking for ways to spare their pocketbooks.
Commuter Connect, a program of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority (CIRTA), is one alternative. The service connects citizens with similar commutes through vanpools and carpools.
With steadily-high gas prices through much of 2012, Commuter Connect saw its number of vanpools more than double. Lori Kaplan, the program's business development and vanpool manager, also attributes the rise to Commuter Connect rebranding its message and advertising more.
"There has been increased awareness of opportunities to use transportation other than driving alone in single-occupancy vehicles," she said. "We've increased our outreach and our efforts to let people know about opportunities available through Commuter Connect."
They also started presenting the program to some of the region's larger employers, particularly those that have workers who commute long distances.
"Employers see it as an additional benefit that they can offer to their employees, something they can add to what's made them an employer of choice," said Kaplan, adding that many businesses now also want to be seen as environmentally friendly.
"So many employers are concerned about having a good environmental record and doing things that support a good environment," she said.
Some of those companies include Cummins, which has seven vanpools bringing workers from Indianapolis and Greenwood to its Columbus headquarters. Delphi in Kokomo has 57 employees who share four vans from Indianapolis and Hamilton County. And Defense Finance and Accounting Services at Fort Harrison on Indy's eastside operates five vanpools from all over central Indiana, including one that comes from Plainfield.
Jim Whiddon, a software engineer at DFAS, has participated in the Plainfield vanpool since it started in July 2011. Most of its 13 riders are from Plainfield, though some live in Avon, Mooresville, and elsewhere.
"It's saved me a lot of gas money," said Whiddon, who lives in Brownsburg. "I was filling my tank twice a week. Now it lasts a lot longer."
Indeed, an 80-mile daily round-trip commute costs about $230 a month when gas is $3.50 per gallon. The typical monthly cost to be in a vanpool, by contrast, is $100 to $120 per passenger. That includes all fuel costs and fees.
"The end result for our users is cost savings," said Kaplan, though Commuter Connect's goal also is to improve air quality by reducing the number of motor vehicles on the road. The program is funded through a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Funding grant.
"We are, at its heart, an environmental program," Kaplan said.
There are still uncertainties the program finds itself continually addressing. One is those who say they don't know anyone else who has the same commute as they do. Commuter Connect has an automated database that matches participants with similar routes.
"While they may not know anybody in their immediate work location, there might be someone who works across the street," Kaplan said.
Flexibility is another concern. Many people need their car to run errands at lunch or before or after work.
"We don't say you should carpool or vanpool every day," Kaplan said. "Even one day a week will save you money and help the environment."
But what if your van or carpool driver has an emergency and has to leave outside the normal work schedule? In such cases, Commuter Connect has an emergency ride home program. Anyone who carpools an average of three times a week can get a free taxi ride up to 50 miles in the event of an emergency.
Whiddon has found another advantage to vanpooling - camaraderie. He and his fellow commuters have become tight-knit despite losing some riders and gaining new ones over time.
"We have a good group," Whiddon said. "We kid each other a lot and have a good time. One of the keys to making it successful is that we have five people that can drive. We take turns. That way if someone's out for whatever reason, somebody else can take over."
Kaplan isn't sure how Indianapolis compares to other similar-size cities in car and vanpooling ridership.
"We're pleased with the growth we've experienced in the last year," she said. "But we also know that there's tremendous room for growth."
For more information on Commuter Connect, call 327-7433 or visit the website at CommuterConnect.us.