More employers strive to help workers, state, environment with commuter benefits

KEEPING ON TRACK

April 15, 1991|By Michael Enright | Michael Enright,Special to The Sun

Recruiting people from the downtown Baltimore area to work at the BWI Airport's Guest Quarters Hotel has always been tough for Sylvia Taylor, the hotel's human resources director.

"When you mention where the hotel is located, you can see their eyes roll, and you know what they're going to say next," Ms. Taylor says. The standard response: "That's too far away and I don't have a car."

But thanks to the hotel's employee benefit package, Ms. Taylor often can ease employees' transportation worries.

The hotel sells monthly bus passes to employees at half the Mass Transit Administration's price. So instead of $37.50, Guest Quarters workers pay $18.75. The hotel also runs van shuttles between work and the bus stop near the airport throughout the day, so employees don't have to make a nearly 4-mile hike to or from the hotel.

"From a recruitment perspective, it's something people are more interested in than insurance benefits," Ms. Taylor said. "I've gotten some people who call me and say they've heard I have half-priced bus passes for sale," she adds with a laugh. "They didn't realize you have to work here to qualify."

As roads become more crowded, the air dirtier and public transportation increasingly expensive, government officials, environmentalists and business leaders are focusing attention on innovative transportation programs.

Congress' recent passage of the Clean Air Act will go a long way toward forcing businesses to get involved.

That law requires that vehicle trips in the Baltimore-Washington area be cut by 25 percent between 1992 and 1996. And its implementation will affect dozens of companies.

By 1992, Maryland must develop and give the federal government a plan for reducing the number of vehicle trips. To meet that goal, the state will require companies with 100 or more employees to develop their own transportation programs, by 1994.

Penalties for not meeting the federal standards haven't been set yet.

Around Baltimore-Washington International Airport, innovative programs are needed as badly as anywhere else in the Baltimore metropolitan area. An estimated 105,000 people work in and around the airport and 86 percent of them drive into work alone, according to figures from the non-profit Greater BWI Commuter Transportation Center in Hanover. A mere 1 percent of these people use buses; 13 percent take a car pool to work.

"It's obvious we can do a lot better," said Nancy Van Winter, executive director of the commuter center.

A number of employee transportation programs or incentiveshave sprung up around the country. In Maryland, business groups in Hunt Valley and Annapolis are developing transportation programs similar to the BWI commuter center, which has been hailed as a national model.

Companies have many options for meeting the pending Clean Air Act requirements and unclogging local road networks, transportation experts say. Some suggestions:

* Preferential parking: One of the simplest policies a company can initiate, preferential parking gives car pools and van pools access to parking spots closest to the work site. Companies that don't have their own lots can pay for car pools' parking, as an alternative.

* Subsidized employee transit passes: This program allows employers to offer transportation as a company benefit, just like a health plan or an IRA. The Guest Quarters hotel spends about $5,600 annually to subsidize MTA bus passes.

The downside, however, is that any subsidy over $15 a week is considered a taxable benefit and must be reported as such by workers.

Predictably, some workers find that a $15 subsidy is not a compelling enough factor to use public transportation. Federal legislators, though, are working on changing current tax laws to let this subsidy rise without taxing it.

The MTA already offers a 6.2 percent discount on $65 monthly transit passes, with the MTA swallowing half of the discount as long as an employer matches it. This reduction cuts the cost of a pass to $61 a month.

Ms. Van Winter called that "peanuts." She added, "But, remember, there's nothing that says the employer can't offer to chip in even more."

* Van pooling: Some private employers have hired vans to pick up employees at a central downtown location, such as Lexington Market, and bring them to work. In some cases, when an employee drives the van, company officials allow that person to take the van home and even use it on the weekends.

* Developers are also getting into the transportation picture by designing office parks with more amenities on site -- a move that keeps workers from hopping into the car to go to lunch or the bank. It also encourages employees to join car pools or ride the bus.

* Flex-time programs: Although not a direct transportation benefit, flex-time schedules allow employees some freedom in choosing what time they will start and finish work. In many cases, this can allow spouses to drive in together while also cutting down traffic at peak hours.

Corporate flex-time programs generally run about an hour before and after the workday. For example, a company whose standard workday is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. may allow employees to work any eight hours between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Michael Enright is a free-lance writer who often covers business issues for The Sun.

RIDE ON!

For more information on developing transportation programs, call:

* Greater BWI Commuter Transportation Center, 859-1000

* Greater Hunt Valley Transportation Management Associates, 825-6200

* Greater Annapolis Chamber of Commerce, 268-7676

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