Carpooling takes a back seat

State program to get workers to ride together is largely ignored

RICK KARLIN Capitol bureau
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Tuesday, March 21, 2006

ALBANY - Here's a deal: prime indoor parking, right under the office, for less than $10 a month.


That's the offer to state workers if they're willing to carpool under an incentive program New York has been pushing since last fall. And they're avoiding it like an Albany pothole.


Of the 19,500 state employees who work at Empire State Plaza and the surrounding business district each day, only 27 have signed up to carpool since the program started in October. Another 72 participants carpool under an older program.


Transportation planners, who say carpooling is a tough sell even with the best programs, nonetheless were shocked at how few people are participating.


"I find it kind of astounding," said Kevin McCarty, senior director of federal policy at the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington, D.C., group that follows transit issues including carpooling. "The expectation is that New York is a smarter place. But they are not."


Since the oil supply shocks of the 1970s, carpooling has been an on-again, off-again topic for employers and governments nationwide. When gas hit $3 a gallon last year, Gov. George Pataki told the state Office of General Services to revive efforts to get more state workers to ride together. OGS in October began offering discounted parking spots in six of the most popular lots.


But the weak response typifies the way things are done in New York, some people say.


Rather than putting a comprehensive program in place, the incentives OGS is offering are inadequate and promotion has been almost invisible, say transportation planners and state workers.


"The restrictions are too high," said Deborah Stacey, a senior transportation planner at the Capital District Transportation Committee, which has been advising OGS.


Stacey noted that the inducement for the choicest spots - in the Empire State Plaza garage, close to many state offices - requires a group of four carpoolers. Any transit expert knows getting a group of four people together can be difficult, she said.


Also, she wondered if the parking discount is enough of a carrot. It would lower the cost of a spot in the Plaza from $17.94 to $8.96 a month. (Commercial parking spots start at around $120 a month.)


Moreover, the program is a mystery to many.


"I don't know about other employees, but Department of Environmental Conservation employees have never been made aware of this," said Jim Close, an environmental program specialist at the agency who has long complained about the lack of carpooling promotions. It's on the DEC Web site, Close said, but "it's a real exercise in digging just to find it."


The Capital District Transportation Authority, which operates buses in the region, says few people are carpooling. In a report last month concerning the Sara toga area, it concluded "car pools are declining in use in the region; this trend is unlikely to change."


Carpooling can be more successful, say transportation experts, when parking is in short supply. From that standpoint, the state's construction of more parking, including the 2,400-car East Lot near Madison Avenue almost six years ago, may have been counterproductive.


That project was designed to help resolve the battle between Albany residents, who say state workers take most of the available parking downtown, and public employee unions that say there aren't enough spaces.


"OGS and all these organizations have a parking mentality," said Lawrence D'Arco, a union shop steward at DEC who has pushed for more carpooling, only to see the emphasis placed on expanded lots.


Like Close, D'Arco believes OGS needs to embrace some of the newest technology for creating car pools, such as interactive Web sites used in places such as Toronto, suburban Washington, D.C., and the Rochester area.


This isn't to say no one carpools.


According to 2000 census data, Stacey said, nearly 10 percent of the Capital Region's work force engages in some kind of carpool ing. Much of that is informal, such as the three-person pool that DEC employees Edie Bain, Geri DeMarco and Anthony Karwiel have had for three years.


"We just started talking about it," Karwiel recalled of how they decided to share a ride from Rensselaer County to the DEC building in Albany.


In addition to saving on gas and wear on their cars, they enjoy the company.


"It's nice to get somebody to talk to," Karwiel said.


Conversations range from TV shows to work place news to how their kids are doing in sports.


"We discuss the day's events, we discuss family challenges," Bain said. They even coach each other on the latest teenage lingo so they can decipher what their kids are talking about.


"It's just our way of saying, `Hey, we can do this, we can beat the fuel crunch and protect the environment,' " she said.


OGS spokeswoman Christine Burling stressed her agency is looking to boost its incentive program. "Basically, we want to get more people involved," she said. "We're looking at other places that have done a good job."


The low numbers in the OGS program are in some ways symbolic of the nation's aversion to carpooling as well as mass transit, said Kevin Shannon, executive director of the Association for Commuter Transportation. Carpooling is a "hard sell" almost everywhere, he said.


Some like the time alone, but many feel they can't give up the flexibility of having their own car.


"I have to take two kids to day care," said Brad Fahsel, who commutes from Guilderland to the Plaza each day.


It's a doubly difficult sell in the Capital Region, where, compared with major metropolitan areas, there aren't many traffic headaches, said Stacey.


"We're addicted to oil, but we don't have a treatment program," McCarty said.








Rick Karlin can be reached at 454-5758 or by e-mail at rkarlin@timesunion.com.





On the WebFor information on the OGS car pool incentive go to http://www.ogs.state.ny.us/ parking/forState/employee.html For a Web-based bulletin board of people seeking car pool partners, go to http://www.commuter-register.org





****FACT BOX:****


Cheap parkingThe state's carpooling program offers low rates for public parking, including some of the choicest spots around the Capitol. PARKING LOTCARPOOL SPACESOCCUPANTS REQUIREDCOST PER OCCUPANT PER PAY PERIOD Empire State Plaza 50 4 $2.24 East Parking Garage 150 3 $2.82 East Garage roof 100 3 $1.41 Water Street 100 2 $2.12 100 Broadway 75 2 $2.12 McCarty Avenue 75 2 $2.12


Source: Office of General Services