Commuteride vanpool fills a public transit gap

Teya Vitu//March 10, 2017

Commuteride vanpool fills a public transit gap

Teya Vitu//March 10, 2017

Sylvia Marmon has piloted a Commuteride van as a commuter for 17 years. Photo by Pete Grady.
Sylvia Marmon has piloted a Commuteride van as a commuter for 17 years. Photo by Pete Grady.

Sylvia Marmon is at the steering wheel, as she has been for 17 years with  Commuteride, the Ada County Highway District vanpool service.

ACHD has offered Commuteride since 1976 for commuters from neighboring counties. Generally, drivers rotate among vanpool riders, but Marmon always claims the wheel of her van that runs from Caldwell to Nampa to downtown Boise.

Laura Hutchison (left), Jodi Howell, and Nora McKay get ready to board a Commuteride van. Photo by Pete Grady.

Marmon has used alternative commuting methods for more than 30 years, first in a Simplot vanpool in the 1980s, then through carpooling. She joined Commuteride in 1999.

“I do not have to pay to go to work. I’m saving $110 a month,” said Marmon, who manages the printing and mailing facility at the city of Boise. “How many vehicles have I saved over the years?”

Commuteride carries 800 residents of seven counties to Boise and Mountain Home Air Force Base for work. The 83 vans now serve Ada, Canyon, Elmore, Gem, Payette, Boise and Malheur counties, mostly with 13-seat Ford Econoline vans and five six-seat Toyota Siena vans, according to Maureen Gresham, Commuteride’s manager.

Vanpooling only makes sense for distances of at least 10 miles, Gresham said.

“Within that distance, the commute is too short that it is not worth getting to the vanpool pick-up and drop-off points,” she said.

She added that vanpooling qualifies as public transit because it’s owned and operated by a public entity.

Commuteride fares qualify as a tax-free transportation fringe benefit under U.S. Tax Code Section 132(f). Employees and employers pay no employment taxes on transportation funds up to $255 that are deducted pre-tax from an employee’s paycheck and set aside in a separate account similar to a health savings account, Gresham said.

Commuteride, established in 1976/7, is the oldest multi-employer vanpool program in the country, according to the Association for Commuter Transportation. Unlike many other U.S. vanpools, whose popularity has varied over the decades, Commuteride ridership has grown throughout the decades until just the recent years, Gresham said.

“When gas prices dropped, people started dropping out, but they are coming back because they missed being able to sleep,” Gresham said.

drive-timeCarol Vasel, a passenger in Marmon’s van, said the vanpool can be boisterous or a rolling dormitory. She became a Commuteride rider in February 2016 when she started working at the Idaho Department of Lands.

“We are a one-vehicle family,” said Vasel, who lives in Nampa. “I free up the car for my husband.”

The fare ranges from $80 to $190 a month, depending on distance. Potential riders can try it out for free for 21 days. If one person does more than 80 percent of the driving, like Marmon, he or she commutes for free.

The fares cover buying and operating the van fleet.

“Vanpools pay for themselves,” Gresham said. “We have a 100 percent recovery rate on operational costs.”

ACHD owns the vans, but commuter drivers take the vans home and park them at work, as if they owned them.

“Basically, we hand the keys over,” Gresham said. “We don’t see the vans unless there’s an issue.”

Mike Davidson, who lives in Nampa, became a Commuteride rider in October 2015 when he started a job in accounts payable at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. A friend who rode the Commuteride van service told Davidson about the program.

“It’s a whole lot better to take Commuteride than driving my own car,” Davidson said. “I don’t have to deal with traffic and it’s less expensive. It’s not that far but it’s far enough that it makes a big difference.”

ACHD calculates Commuteride’s 232,000 passenger trips removed 13 million miles of single-occupied vehicle drives off the roadways from October 2015 to September 2016. The vans traveled a combined 1.7 million miles in that year, Gresham said.

Commuteride’s marketing coordinator, Nicole Stern, as also a Commuteride passenger from Nampa. She tracks her numbers.

“I save about 6,000 miles a year off my 2007 Toyota Vibe. That thing is going strong,” Stern said.

Public transit on roadways around the world typically takes longer than solo driving.

“I don’t look at it as time inconvenience,” Stern said. “It takes about five minutes longer (than driving herself). That five minutes, I count that as 30 minutes to read, sleep, look at Facebook. I like it when there is traffic because I get a longer nap.”

Find a commuting partner with My Commuter Crew

Ada County Highway District in 2016 unveiled an online one-stop shop to get across town without your car.

You enter your start point and destination and My Commuter Crew will churn out all the carpool partners, cycling partners, walking partners, transit partners, vanpool routes and transit routes available to you.

My Commuter Crew has more than 1,700 participants who create accounts with their modes and times of travel. The program then matches the search in “my commute options” with the available options.

“Instead of match.com, it’s matchbox.com,” said Maureen Gresham, manager of ACHD’s Commuteride vanpool program.

For instance, a trip starting at 7700 W. Fairway and going to 400 W. Main St. turns up 32 potential carpool partners, 23 cycling partners, four walking partners, 18 transit partners, five vanpool routes and four transit routes.

ACHD administers My Commuter Crew, which is a collaboration with Valley Regional Transit, the Idaho Transportation Department and the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho.

Businesses can also set up accounts at My Commuter Crew, which Gresham describes as a micro site. People who work at St. Luke’s, for example, and who mention St. Luke’s in their profiles, will get linked to the St. Luke’s micro site.

Gresham said her agency’s goal was to have five businesses create micro sites. Sixty-four had by the end of 2016, she said.