Programs promise help for struggling commuters U.S. 1 businesses among beneficiaries

March 19, 1996|By James M. Coram and Ivan Penn | James M. Coram and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Howard County employers along the U.S. 1 corridor and in the Columbia Gateway office park will be told tomorrow that long-sought help for their commuting employees is the on way.

The county government with the BWI Business Partnership and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council plans to help commuters by coordinating car pools, developing company programs and providing free shuttle service between the Jessup MARC station and area companies.

"We have to work harder on what I call the 'reverse commute' helping find transportation to bring people [from elsewhere] to work" within the county, said Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker. "I think this is a very positive move. I am hopeful we can work something out for businesses who need workers along Route 1."

At a breakfast meeting tomorrow, Mr. Ecker, county officials and representatives of the BWI partnership and the Metropolitan Council will air the results of the council's commuter survey done last summer among employees commuting to the U.S. 1 corridor.

Among its survey's key findings were that:

* The "overwhelming majority of employees" 81.6 percent drive to work alone.

* A majority of employees 64.2 percent say they don't have access to public transportation. And 23 percent don't know whether it's available.

* Even those who know there is public transportation report knowing little about how to use it.

* Many employees not only work for companies near each other, but they live near each other.

That makes car-pooling a natural, said Karen O'Neill, the county's commuter assistance coordinator. She and Neil Shpritz, executive director of the BWI Business Partnership, plan to visit every employer within the corridor to help design commuter-assistance programs. "This is the first step toward a long-term solution," Mr. Shpritz said.

Carl S. Balser, the county's chief transportation planner, said the survey will help map strategies for commuters. For example, he said, two adjacent companies may have shifts that differ by only a half-hour. "If one or both companies could alter their shift times a little, we could work out a van pool," he said.

Workers along the U.S. 1 corridor are most in need of the county's commuter assistance efforts.

The corridor has thousands of entry-level warehouse, packing and distribution jobs that pay an average of $6 to $8 an hour, often too low to enable the workers to afford to live in Howard County, one of the nation's wealthiest jurisdictions.

But many of those workers also don't have cars. Although MARC trains stop in Elkridge, Jessup, Savage and Laurel, there are no shuttle bus services from those stops to employment areas.

Because of those transportation problems, many U.S. 1 businesses have been short of workers at times. For example, Corporate Express, an office-supply company on U.S. 1, had to boost wages for some of its jobs 30 percent last year to lure new employees.

The Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income people, had hoped to start a program in September to bus up to 500 city residents to jobs along U.S. 1. That program has been postponed because of the group's inability to get federal help.

Mr. Balser expects no difficulty, however, getting a grant under the state's Transportation Emission Reduction Pilot Program (TERP). The TERP grant would allow the county and the BWI Business Partnership to provide free shuttle service linking the Jessup MARC station with the Route 175 Park and Ride, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and area companies.

Mr. Balser is expecting approval of the $168,400 grant within the next two weeks. Under the grant, BWI Business Partnership would manage a four-van shuttle system.

One van would go west to Gateway businesses during rush hours each morning, one would go north to businesses along U.S. 1, another would go south along U.S. 1 to businesses there, and a fourth would visit Anne Arundel businesses en route to BWI. The routes would be reversed during the evening rush hour.

As an incentive for car-pooling or riding MARC trains, employees whose employers are members of the BWI Business Partnership would receive free rides home in a cab if business or personal emergencies caused them to leave work at odd hours.

Employers would provide the cab service through membership in the BWI Business Partnership, which is contributing $41,100. Participating companies could receive federal tax benefits under a federal program designed to assist employers who help employees use mass transit, Mr. Balser said.

Independent of the need to aid commuters, Howard needs to limit solitary automobile commuting to meet federal clean-air requirements. As part of the Baltimore region, Howard County has been labeled "a severe nonattainment area for ground-level ozone" by the federal government and must reduce auto emissions.

Pub Date: 3/19/96

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