By Scott Prater
Energy conservationists here had a good thing going when the city of Colorado Springs offered bus service to Schriever. Fuel, wear and tear on personal vehicles and the long drive out from distant parts of the city made riding the bus a smart move.
But when budget cuts forced the city to end bus service to Schriever this past January, some 250 commuters had no choice but to revert back to driving their own cars.
As administrators of the Department of Transportation’s Mass Transportation Benefit Program here, members of the 50th Logistics Readiness Flight could have simply thrown up their hands and said, “Well, we had a good run.” Instead, they began searching for a new program to fill the void.
“We looked at the commuter-van-pool idea,” said Tech. Sgt. Richard Cardiel, 50 LRF noncommissioned officer in charge. “We inquired with several van-pool operations in the area and learned about their programs. Ultimately, we decided on one local company and invited their representatives to deliver a briefing to interested people here.”
Schriever’s commuter-van-pool program started off slow, but as word spread, more commuters began participating.
“Right now, we have roughly 100 people who use this program to ride to and from work,” Sergeant Cardiel said. “We have six vans that run in neighborhoods such as Falcon, Briargate, Fountain, Stetson Hills, and we have room to grow.”
Under guidance from former President Bill Clinton, the DOT adopted the Mass Transit Benefit Program for use by active duty military, reserve and Department of Defense civilians early in 2001.
Under the MTBP, participating employees who use public transportation to commute can receive “transit passes” in amounts equal to their personal commuting costs up to a pre-determined limit. It is designed to reduce pollution and traffic congestion, preserve the environment and expand transportation alternatives. Public transportation includes commuter buses, commuter trains and subways or light rail.
Here at Schriever, Sergeant Cardiel said program funds were used to buy bus passes when the city offered the service here. Now, program funds are used to pay van, fuel and maintenance costs for the commuter vans. Anyone who wishes to take advantage of the program needs to apply through the LRF office. Funds for each individual are paid directly to the LRF, which issues vouchers to the van drivers to pay for fuel and maintenance.
All vans currently in use by the program are full, but if more riders want to join a pool in a specific neighborhood the group can apply for a larger van, and if a neighborhood pool gains enough new riders, the neighborhood will qualify for an additional van.
Deborah Freeman lives in Briargate and rode the city bus for eight years before the city cut the route to Schriever. Now, she shares a ride with some of her Briargate neighbors in one of the commuter vans.
“I like saving and doing my part to conserve energy,” Ms. Freeman said. “I’m not using gasoline and putting wear and tear on my car and it’s kind of fun to ride in a big group. You can sleep or chat, or get work done during the trip.”
Ms. Freeman likes the increased flexibility the commuter vans provide and the idea of sharing driving duties.
“Last week I had a cold, so I drove myself,” she said. “That way I could leave earlier if I needed to. If you’re not riding the van on a particular day it’s easy to call your fellow riders and tell them you’re not going to be at the pick-up point. Normally the van leaves our meet-up spot at 6:15. If you’re not there and haven’t let anybody know, then the van leaves.”
Particulars of schedule and meet-up points are decided by each group. Unlike most car pools, the van commuters pick a meet-up spot in the neighborhood and the riders all drive or walk the short distance there. So there’s no driving around to rider’s houses or waiting as folks clamber out their doors.
Each van has a primary driver and an alternate. If riders want to drive, they just need to apply through the van pool company.
Sergeant Cardiel said that’s actually one minor drawback that may keep people from participating.
“The driver has to make a commitment to keep the van at his or her residence, gas it, and handle the vouchers,” he said. “Some people just don’t want to take that on.”
But Ms. Freeman likes the van pool much better than the city bus.
“The busses they provided for the Schriever route seemed to be the oldest ones,” she said. “Sometimes they’d overheat in the summer and were slow to warm up during the winter. Also, I like riding with the folks in our group, like Sheila Thomas in the 50th Network Operations Group and Paul Pabich in 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron.”
Paul Pabich, the primary driver in the Briargate van pool admits there are a few minute drawbacks, but the benefits far outweigh them.
“If you have to stay late for work or arrive early, you have to make arrangements with your fellow riders, and you have to find a ride home,” he said. “But just think about the amount of energy we’re saving. I mean, there are six of us in our pool and we’re saving fuel and expenses for six families and six vehicles.”
For more information about the commuter van pool program here, contact Sergeant Richard Cardiel at 567-6632 or Staff Sgt. Jesse Roberge at 567-3365.