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Group eyes regional van pool to help Interstate 380 commuters

Eastern Iowa system was key recommendation of DOT study

Stephen Mally/The Gazette

Amy Bennett (left) and Rob Cline, both of Cedar Rapids, get in a University of Iowa vanpool vehicle that will head to Cedar Rapids from the UI campus on Monday.
Stephen Mally/The Gazette Amy Bennett (left) and Rob Cline, both of Cedar Rapids, get in a University of Iowa vanpool vehicle that will head to Cedar Rapids from the UI campus on Monday.
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When Della Rhodes of Marion was preparing to interview for a job at University of Iowa a few years ago, she pictured her daily commute and almost canceled the interview.

She was facing a 45-minute drive each way, each day, along the congested Interstate 380. Fortunately, a friend provided a key piece of information — the UI offers van pool.

“Without that, I’d have to reconsider working here,” said Rhodes, who interviewed and got the job as an auditor. “I think it is a great resource because it opens up the labor pool for the university.”

Now the Cedar Rapids-based East Central Iowa Council of Governments is spearheading an effort to launch a regional van pool service to help combat congestion on I-380 and expand job opportunities. A van pool was a key recommendation from the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Iowa Commuter Transportation Study last year.

A rideshare committee is looking to the UI and other van pools such as the one operated by Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority, better known as DART, for information.

The work is just beginning and there’s more questions than answers at this stage:

Who will run it? What areas should it serve? How much it would cost? How do you identify drivers? How do you match rides? How does an emergency ride home program work?

“With UI being 25 miles from here, it is something we can learn from,” said Mary Rump, transportation and regional development director at the Council of Governments. “Expanding their van pool is probably not feasible, but if we work with them and learn from them, we can make best use of their experience.”

Loyal users

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The UI’s van pool started in 1978 with four vans, and has grown with some fluctuation to 67 maxi- and mini-vans serving 651 people in more than 21 communities as far as Davenport and Mount Pleasant,

Ridership peaked at 861 in fiscal 2009 as the recession set in and gas prices spiked. It’s declined some due to a wave of early retirements and, to a lesser extent, decreasing gas prices, said Michelle Ribble, UI commuter programs manager.

The UI is trying to introduce the program to new employees, but it’s been stable with a loyal group of users, she said.

“It was hard to form, but it’s also hard to break,” she said.

Participants rave about cost savings from gas and parking, getting to read or sleep, and avoiding winter driving. Challenges, however, include the lack of flexibility for changing work schedules, adding 15 to 30 minutes to a commute, and overcoming trepidation of riding with strangers.

The cost is divided by the number of passengers in the vehicle, while the driver rides for free but has additional responsibilities, such as filling up gas or arranging maintenance.

Prices vary. Employees coming from Kalona may pay around $50, while those coming from Davenport or Wayland may pay more than $100. A van from Clarence charges $134 per month.

The cost includes the vehicle — which stays with the driver — gas, upkeep, and parking permits.

Some van pool groups opt to pay more and have fewer passengers to reduce the number of stops and allow for extra room in the vehicle.

The UI’s website offers a calculator to estimate savings. An 80-mile round trip may with parking would cost $250 per month, not including wear and tear on a personal vehicle.

“It’s been such an efficient and cost-effective way to get back and forth,” said Rob Cline, a 14-year van pool participant from Cedar Rapids. “I like not having to do the driving, being able to read, to decompress along the way.

“I like the green component. I like that six of us are riding together in one car, instead of six separate vehicles on the road.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 79 percent of Iowans drive alone to work.

‘The bones to be successful’

The Council of Governments’s Rump and the UI agree there would be differences comparing UI’s program, which is anchored by a single employer, and a regional system.

The primary purpose of the UI van pool is to reduce the need for expensive parking infrastructure on a tight campus, as opposed to addressing congestion, said Parking and Transportation Director Dave Ricketts.

The UI subsidized the cost of the van pool to the tune of $727,204 in fiscal 2014, according to UI data.

“Seven hundred people is another parking lot,” Ricketts said. “If you can keep a highway well below its maximum capacity, it speeds up. It’s the same way on campus. Systems operate a lot more efficiently if they are not overloaded.”

To help alleviate concerns, the UI reimburses van pool participants up to three times per year for an emergency taxi ride through the guaranteed ride home program.

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Rump said a guaranteed ride home option is an important consideration when thinking about leaving a car at home.

The DART van pool is celebrating its 20th year in operation. With nearly 100 vans, participants travel as much as 200 miles a day to work, said Elizabeth Presutti, DART general manager.

The DART van pool is customer driven, she said, and the costs are fully covered by fares, which range from $85 to $400 per month.

According to the DOT study, the cost comparison between DART and UI’s van pool weren’t far apart.

“It definitely has the bones to be very successful,” Presutti said of a regional van pool service in Eastern Iowa. “You have the employment center set up, and where residential areas are set up and with the congestion on the Corridor, those factors can help it be very successful.

“I think there’s a real opportunity to get it set up.”

Crissy Ditmore, who works for vRide, a private company that contracts with public entities for van pool services, and also serves as the public policy liaison for the Association for Commuter Transportation’s van pool council, said she believes the van pool market is the fastest growing form of public transportation.

Between grants and fares, many van pools cover their own costs, making it an appealing option for public agencies, she said. vRide has seen a 50 percent increase in contracts for van pool services in the past five to eight years, she said.

“Van pools address the niche market,” she said. “It’s not the cure all, but it addresses the commutes not covered by public transportation.”

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