Cash Incentives for Carpooling to Get a Trial Run in D.C. Area

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Die-hard solo drivers in the Washington area will soon have a new reason to consider carpooling -- cold hard cash.

In a three-month test program starting this fall, commuters along three congested corridors will be eligible to earn $2 a day by sharing rides to work. If that short-term reward leads to a long-term shift in habits, the offer could be extended to other parts of the region to ease gridlock.

"Are they going to continue carpooling? That's really going to be the key point," said Nicholas Ramfos, director of Commuter Connections, a network of transportation groups coordinated by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which will administer the pilot program.

To be eligible for the $1-each-way reward, commuters must currently drive alone along any portion of the three designated routes.

The morning routes are Interstate 395 from the District across the 14th Street Bridge into Northern Virginia; the Capital Beltway from Bethesda to Tysons Corner; and the Beltway from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to Interstate 270. The routes are reversed in the afternoon.

They are among the region's most crowded highways and because they offer limited van-pool and transit service, Ramfos said, commuters have few options besides driving. And with no HOV lanes, carpooling offers no time-saving reward.

The program will be modeled on similar incentives offered in cities across the country, including Atlanta, Los Angeles and Redmond, Wash.

Atlanta's Cash for Commuters program offers drivers $3 a day for three months -- up to $100 -- to shift to alternatives including carpooling, biking, taking public transit and working from home. About 29,000 commuters have participated since the program began in 2002, eliminating an estimated 32.8 million vehicle miles of travel, according to the Clean Air Campaign, which runs the Atlanta program. Nine months to a year after the cash stops flowing, 64 percent of Atlanta participants still use those alternatives at least once a week, according to a survey by the nonprofit Center for Transportation and the Environment.

"People are in their normal habit, and it takes something to dislodge them from that habit," said Kevin Green, director of the Clean Air Campaign. "It may be gas prices or it may be a financial incentive program."

The pilot carpool program will be paid for with federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement funds that were budgeted for 2009 but never used. The projected cost is $192,000, including $95,000 in incentive payments for an estimated 700 participants. The rest will pay for administration and advertising. Commuter Connections hopes to begin registration online in October. Ramfos said each participant will get a check with the full amount at the end of the program.

In Atlanta, officials discourage cheating by requiring commuters to provide employer contact information when they register and signatures from supervisors before and after the program. Participants are less likely to try to game the system when their work relationships are at stake, Green said. So far, the program has caught about 25 cheaters.

The Washington area program will take a similar tack to prevent fraud. But in addition to collecting employer signatures and making random phone calls to participants' workplaces, Commuter Connections will require carpool members to vouch for one another's online trip reports.

"We certainly aren't going to have carpool incentive police going out and tracking whether you were in the carpool that day," Ramfos said. "It's going to be on the honor system."

This is not the first financial rewards program for commuters in the Washington area. To relieve congestion during construction on the Woodrow Wilson and Frederick Douglass bridges, regional transportation officials offered drivers $50 a month from bridge project funds toward public transit and van-pool fees.

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