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Wednesday | 05 November, 2008 | 8:27 am

Sharing rides

By John Loos

November 2008 - There are few motorists these days who aren't feeling pain at the pump. With gas prices consistently too high for comfort, the frustration of the morning commute has now expanded beyond simply sitting in traffic--each minute spent in traffic is another minute of money being drained from the tank.

Because of this, companies across the country are actively participating in ride-sharing programs to promote alternative commuting solutions and are saving their employees money. One such program, CommuteSmart Alabama, has been gaining popularity as high gas prices have proven they're here to stay.

Growing interest
Established in 1999 by the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, the federally funded CommuteSmart program now has 75 local employers active in the program, with more than 5,000 individuals registered, and counting. "O'Neal Steel Inc., Birmingham, Ala., the largest family-owned service center in the United States, has been participating in the CommuteSmart program for more than two years, and its level of participation has continually increased.

"Several employees have been receptive," says Donna Cornwell, human resources supervisor. "Here in our corporate office, we've had a lot of employees sign up for the program and receive benefits from the program. In our warehouse, it's a little different because of the different shifts, but there are a handful of warehouse workers that are participating."

The benefits Cornwell mentions include cash incentives and gift cards for participants after set periods of time. First-time riders receive a $120 check after 90 days of participation, and after that, receive $25 gas cards every quarter.

But the real savings come in the amount of money saved on gas. CommuteSmart offers a cost calculator on its Web site that allows potential participants to see how much money they can save by ride sharing. For example, a full-time employee with a 30-mile round-trip commute and a 20-miles-per-gallon vehicle can save roughly $2,500 a year by carpooling at $4-a-gallon gas levels.

Considering these monetary perks, O'Neal has seen more employees become more dedicated to the CommuteSmart program. When asked if employees are sticking to CommuteSmart, Cornwell says that "the carpooling was a little bit suggestive before gas prices got up to what they are now, but now they definitely are."

Employee-friendly
Because of O'Neal's location, alternative transportation methods encouraged by CommuteSmart, like bus, rail and bike, aren't viable options, so the focus has been on ride sharing. The company even has an employee who drives a carpooling van for other participating employees living in outlying counties. "The services that we receive through [CommuteSmart] are very employee-friendly," says Cornwell. "It's just a positive PR approach with your employees to let them know these services may be available in your area. The program varies state to state, but making employees aware of any program in their area that would support this initiative is a great idea."

Across Alabama, CommuteSmart has major operations in the Montgomery and Mobile areas. Similar programs are available in Southern California, the Silicon Valley and many other major metropolitan areas. For more information on local commuting programs, contact Sean Saffle, program manager for CommuteSmart Birmingham, at 205/264-8429. MM

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