Charles R. Zimmerman, an official for Bechtel Power Corp. in Shady Grove, was stuck in I-270 traffic five years ago when he realized his company could ease its parking woes and local congestion with a company van pool. The result: 300 empty spaces in Bechtel's parking lot.
Now Montgomery County officials are hoping part of Zimmerman's idea can work elsewhere in the county, where the percentage of cars with one person clogging roads can reach 80 percent.
Yesterday, Montgomery County Transportation Director Robert S. McGarry presented part of Bechtel's solution to more than 100 concerned business executives, government officials and community leaders who are trying to ease traffic congestion and avoid losing disgruntled customers and employes fed up with traffic jams and lack of parking spaces. He announced that the county is planning to raise its parking fees and encouraged employers to voluntarily join the effort by rewarding employes who use alternative transportation and charging parking fees for those who drive.
The Department of Transportation has targeted firms in the Bethesda central business district and in Shady Grove at I-270 for specific plans to reduce traffic, although McGarry said he hopes businesses elsewhere in the county adopt similar plans because "business traffic is the main cause of peak-hour traffic."
McGarry suggested that employers offer preferred parking for car pools and van pools and subsidize Metro and Ride-On fares for employes who use public transportation.
McGarry said that under the plans, which will not be final until late August, public parking rates on county-owned lots could double or triple in Bethesda. Those rates now range from 15 cents an hour to $1.20 a day, he said. Once the county plans are final, he said, officials will ask private firms to join the government efforts.
"We will raise rates substantially so it is more attractive to take the bus or Metro rather than drive," McGarry said.
In a separate but related move, McGarry announced that county employes will be charged $2 a day or as much as $500 a year to park at the Rockville government complex beginning next May.
"We've been shooting ourselves in the foot by providing free parking," McGarry said. "Basically we've been encouraging people to drive. We've got 16 bus routes that serve the area and Metro right across the street, but when you offer parking for free, people say, 'What the hell.' "
But Gino Renne, vice president of the Montgomery County Government Employees Organization, said many workers cannot take public transportation because it is inconvenient and they cannot afford to pay for parking. Those employes will be forced to seek free parking in residential areas, he added.
At Bechtel, Zimmerman said ride sharing has increased employes' punctuality. He urged other employers to develop plans for alternative transportation.
"If something isn't done now, the problem is only going to get worse," Zimmerman said. Bechtel has 41 vans and has been serving about 400 employes in four years. Zimmerman, the manager of office services, said the company spent about $500,000 to start the program but expects to break even this year. Employes pay to use the vans.
Although Zimmerman said many companies cannot afford extensive ride-sharing programs, Terry L. Baxter, vice president of GEICO insurance company in Chevy Chase, said they do not have to. Since March, GEICO has been charging employes $10 to $40 a month to park and using that money to subsidize their smaller van pool operation and employes who ride buses or Metro.
"We were encouraging car pools for three or four years without any success," Baxter said. "But when we started charging people for parking, it made them take a look at alternative methods of transportation. And they're happy because the ones still driving have a place to park."