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Originally published July 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 1, 2008 at 10:16 AM

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Puget Sound-area commuters are getting creative to avoid rising gas prices

Weary of his hourlong bus commute, Eric Odegard, who doesn't own a car, tried to start a van pool at his T-Mobile office in Bellevue a year...

Seattle Times staff reporter

How to get started

Not every company has the resources to offer big incentives to change employees' commutes, but there are still ways to drive less and save more.

Call Metro: King County Metro staff can advise commuters on their car-pool and van-pool options. A commuter-services specialist can walk you through how to use www.RideshareOnline.com, get you registered and talk about possible matches. Call 206-625-4500.

Start a car pool or van pool: King County Metro's Web site, transit.metrokc.gov, lists the requirements and application forms. Download a "riders wanted" sign to post at your workplace. Find out about van-pool fares and how to handle car-pool cost-sharing. If your company is small, you can van pool or Rideshare with employees of other companies, too.

Do the math: On Metro's Web site, you can calculate the cost of your commute and compare it to bus, car pool or van pool.

Ask your boss: Small businesses in King County can call Metro for advice on how they can assist their employees with commuting costs. Check out transit.metrokc.gov/cs/employer/empcommute.html.

Source: King County Metro

Weary of his hourlong bus commute, Eric Odegard, who doesn't own a car, tried to start a van pool at his T-Mobile office in Bellevue a year and a half ago. He couldn't find enough interest.

But when he tried again about five weeks ago, with gas prices topping $4 a gallon — AAA put the Washington average at $4.34 Monday — he easily lined up nine co-workers willing to share a ride. And he had to turn some people away.

Now his 30-mile round-trip commute between West Seattle and Factoria is twice as fast, so Odegard has extra time with his newborn daughter. And since T-Mobile's $75 transit subsidy more than covers the $48 van-pool fare, his new commute costs him nothing.

Feeling the pinch at the gas pump, local workers and employers are not waiting for City Hall, the federal government or OPEC to ease the pressure. Instead, they are creating their own networks of commuter alternatives, from private buses to van pools to free bikes.

On Monday, Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center debuted a shuttle service running five 14-passenger vans every 15 minutes to connect its downtown offices, Laurelhurst main hospital and Sand Point campus to the downtown bus tunnel.

High gas prices make people more curious about alternative ways of getting to work, said Children's transportation-policy and planning manager Paulo Nunes-Ueno. "When that curiosity comes up," he said, "we want to be able to answer that."

Perhaps the most visible effort has been Microsoft's Connector service: Its 39 buses shuttle 4,700 employees a day to and from the software giant's Redmond headquarters.

Children's, though much smaller than Microsoft, is following suit. Another line of its shuttle service is due to start in early 2009, running every 10 minutes and connecting with Snohomish County Community Transit and King County Metro bus lines. And a third could follow.

Like other employers, Children's has hired specialists to counsel employees on their commuting options — Nunes-Ueno affectionately calls them "transportation therapists." So far, they have mapped out personalized commuter itineraries for 650 of Children's 4,000 employees.

The hospital already spends more than $3.5 million on transportation annually, including about $2 million to pay $65 a month to 62 percent of its employees who avoid driving to work solo. It also loans a free bike to those who ride to work at least twice a week.

Children's is acting under pressure not just from gas prices but also from traffic considerations. The hospital is hoping to expand its main location and knows the largely residential Laurelhurst neighborhood won't tolerate a big bump in congestion.

Encourage, subsidize

More often than deploying an entire private transit system, companies are allying with public-transportation agencies. Children's, for example, pays King County Metro $250,000 a year for an extra 63 trips each week for bus lines that serve its campus.

"The whole impetus is coming from companies that encourage and subsidize the use of alternative transportation methods," said Steve Gerritson, director of Commuter Challenge, a nonprofit working to ease Puget Sound congestion through public/private collaboration.

About 2,000 King County employers participate in FlexPass, a discounted annual pass that covers bus, rail, van pool and emergency taxis. While the cost of transit passes has held steady, sales to businesses, agencies, schools and other institutional accounts have climbed 33 percent since 2005, to $43.5 million last year.

At the same time, in both King and Snohomish counties, there's been a burst of new interest in van pools, which let commuters who live near each other rent a van from the county to drive together to work. Employers often subsidize the rental fees.

In King County, 80 groups have applied to start van pools in the past two months, including nine from companies with fewer than 100 commuters. In the 12 months ending in May, the number of commuter vans in service increased 11 percent, reaching about 160 local employers.

Over the same period, another 100 Snohomish County van pools hit the road, a 40 percent swell to an all-time high of 350. Both counties now have a waiting list.

King County Metro has doubled its monthly delivery of vehicles to new van pools from 15 to 30. Coordinator Cathy Blumenthal said the county is buying more vans to keep up with the increased demand.

Participation in Rideshare — car pools organized through an online registry — is also at a record high. In the past month alone, Rideshares statewide jumped from 13,500 to 15,000 — capping a 40 percent increase from the same period last year. The last big leap was in November 2005, when gas prices hit $3 a gallon.

New incentives

In many cases the options are not new — but the surge of interest is. Since 1991, state law has required companies that employ 100 or more commuters to provide alternative commuting plans to reduce the number of employees driving alone.

The price of gas has added an incentive for both employers and employees to reduce transportation time and costs.

Commuting assistance also improves employee satisfaction and helps retain workers, which saves companies the costs of hiring and training, said Gerritson, director of Commuter Challenge.

Local companies are trying a variety of approaches:

• At Seattle software firm Entellium, employees have embraced a 3-month-old "green commute initiative" offering subsidized transit passes and telework options, said Glenn Clark, who heads the project.

"They love it," he said. "They realize, 'I might not have considered taking mass transit before, but with increasing gas prices, the opportunity to work at home or with Entellium subsidizing my bus pass, it's a win-win for me.' "

• Seattle-based business-software provider F5 Networks pays up to $300 a month to each worker who forgoes single-occupancy driving. That's 43 percent of its 509 employees.

Showers, towel service and jerseys are also available for bicyclists, among them Dan Matte, senior vice president of marketing and business development. As gas prices rise, Matte said, the bicycle racks at work get more crowded.

• Outdoor-gear retailer REI tends to attract the type of employee who would bike to work anyway, said spokeswoman Bethany Nielson. But van pools are also gathering more interest among the 850 employees at REI's Kent headquarters, including Nielson.

The company, which just created a position charged with coordinating commutes, will soon add three more van pools to its 18 existing routes, she said.

• Three months ago, Seattle architecture firm Mithun began offering $20 bonuses to any of its 200 employees who commit to at least eight round-trip commutes by bike or foot each month. The firm also provides $50 for bus or ferry passes, and has three office cars and bikes to borrow.

• Until last September, 75 employees of Tukwila-based credit union BECU had signed up for a $50 monthly FlexPass subsidy. Then BECU started covering the full cost of the pass, and more than 500 employees are enrolled today.

• When insurer Safeco relocated to downtown Seattle from the University District last year, the percentage of its employees commuting in ways other than driving alone jumped from 50 to 90 percent. Many of them use the company's bike racks and showers or its subsidies for FlexPass or Zipcar hourly auto rentals.

Or for those who opt to nix the commute entirely, Safeco provides free phone and Internet — and even a furniture allowance — for their home offices.

Even if the price of oil recedes again, Blumenthal said, commuters often find the benefits of their new routines to be habit-forming.

"Overall, once people make the change," she said, "they tend to stick with it."

Isaac Arnsdorf: 206-464-2397 or iarnsdorf@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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