With more companies locating in the suburbs, away fro high-density mass transit routes, the Mass Transit Administration has launched a pilot program to create employer-supported van and bus services.
Dubbed "Access to Jobs," the program is the first of its kind in the nation. "The federal government is looking to us as a model," said project manager Rob Klein.
Having been awarded grants totaling $550,000, the MTA is now looking for companies to convert the idea into a fleet of vans shuttling workers to and from their jobs.
About $400,000 of the funding comes from the federal government, the remainder from the state. The pilot project has a three-year life span.
Klein said he'd like the program to become a "travel agency for transit services," matching up companies with participating van and bus services.
In turn, these services will receive a subsidy of 34 1/2 cents per mile for vans and 23 cents a mile for automobiles and mini-vans.
Even though the van companies are receiving a government subsidy, they will not be required to give a specific discount to companies that use their service.
Instead, the program is relying on the competition between the various van companies to provide attractive prices, Klein said. "We are depending on the private sector to make rational choices on their own," he said.
Ideally, the government subsidy can be withdrawn after an operation has been in service for two years.
Established shuttle services are not eligible for the subsidy. But if an established service is expanded or changed significantly, it may qualify, Klein said. Companies that use their own vans or buses to carry employees are not eligible.
Klein said employers have various incentives to start private van operations. They may need to bring in entry-level workers from the city. Or they may want to cut back on "invisible" transportation costs.
These invisible costs include the very visible parking lots that cover suburbia. According to a study by the Urban Land Institute, a single parking space costs an employer an average of $955 a year, which includes construction costs and other expenses.
For about 75 percent of that cost, an employer could pay half of a $6 daily charge to shuttle employees to the workplace, Klein said.
"In the long run, they could have smaller parking lots," he said.
The Access to Jobs program is initially focusing on Hunt Valley, Howard County and the area around the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
So far, the MTA has mailed information to 800 employers and has meet with 50, Klein said.
The project had its origins with Mark Joseph, president of Yellow Transportation Co., who three years ago read an article about a federal program to promote private mass transit.
Besides being one of Baltimore's largest cab companies, Yellow Transportation has an extensive van and bus operation. Joseph saw the opportunity to expand that business.
Working with the Regional Council of Governments, Joseph put together a proposal to establish a van service to suburban work sites. The MTA was brought in because the federal grant had to be channeled through the state.
This also meant that the program had to be opened up to all van companies, and seven other firms have been approved.
While MTA's involvement brought his competitors into a program that was his idea, Joseph said he has adjusted to the situation. "As it works out, we are just as happy," he said. "The key element is to get forward-thinking employers to start thinking about transportation."
Access to Jobs has sponsored one less-than-successful shuttle effort, transporting employees of T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. from their suburban homes to the company's new Owings Mills complex. The project lasted from Dec. 3 to Feb. 28.
Price, a major Baltimore mutual funds investment firm, decided to try the van service while it was preparing to shift 315 workers from its downtown headquarters at 100 E. Pratt St. to Owings Mills, where the company's paperwork will be processed.
Price found that 85 percent of the people to be transferred used public transit to get to work, according to Barbara A. O'Brien, the firm's manager of employee relations.
While it was convenient to get from the suburbs to downtown by mass transit, getting from the suburbs to Owings Mills involved taking a bus into the city, then switching to a bus or the Metro to Owings Mills.
To make the transition to Owings Mills more manageable, Price offered a free van service to pick up workers in Belair, White Marsh and Towson. Between 16 and 25 workers actually used the service.
After three months, Price asked workers to pay for the service, but the ridership was so low that the price was unacceptable, O'Brien said.
"Our employees loved it and we were disappointed that we couldn't make the transition," she said.