Tidewater Regional Transit (TRT)) has taken more than 2,000 commuters a day out of their automobiles, given them rides to work and back in vehicles owned by the transit district, and has done so at minimal cost to the taxpayers.

The vehicles are vans. TRT now has more than 100 of them in operation every day, each carrying at least eight people with common starting points and destinations.

The difference between this program and most other van pools is that TRT is vigorously pushing it as a means of controlling transit costs instead of viewing van pools as competitors.

"If you come to us from a suburban subdivision and want to express bus service, all you're going to hear from us is van pools," said James Echols, TRT's executive director.

Despite all the talk about energy problems, Echols notes, people still choose to live in the suburbs. The majority of new housing units in Tidewater are still single-family residences on separate lots, not apartments or town houses. Subdivisions with single-family homes do not provide enough people to support a traditional bus line, and many subdivision streets are too twisting or narrow to accommodate a traditional 40-foot bus.

The residents of those subdivisions find themselves working more and more in office parks near freeway interchanges instead of in downtown office buildings. But there aren't enough jobs in those office parks to support full bus service from all sections of the metropolitan area.

TRT solves the usual problems of van pooling. It buys and maintains the van, and tests and insures the drivers. The drivers lease the van from TRT for one year and buy the gasoline. They can use the van for personal trips.

TRT tells drivers how much they need to charge passengers to cover the cost of the gasoline, the lease and the insurance, but drivers can set higher rates if they wish. A recommended fare for a 50-mile-a-day round trip is $61 a month in an eight-passenger van. Issues such as whether smoking is permitted are left to van pool members.

The driver gets to ride free, but has the responsibility of keeping the van pool full, finding a qualified back-up driver and collecting the fares. TRT's administrative overhead is buried in the cost of the lease.

"There will probably always be a need for traditional line-haul transit service in close-in, built-up areas," Echols said. "But you're never going to be able to operate a bus efficiently if you can only get 10 or 15 people to ride it."