Lowcountry SmartVan Program offers commuters transportation alternative

23 Sep 2005 | Cpl. K. A. Thompson

The Lowcountry Council of Governments is currently working to develop vanpool routes to help employees in Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties get to and from work.

The Lowcountry SmartVan Program is a pilot project funded by the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry and the South Carolina Department of Transportation. Under the project, 2Plus, Inc., a national non-profit organization specializing in vanpooling, will administer the program by forming vanpool groups and providing vehicles for the routes.

The program is eligible for the Federal Commuter Choice Benefit, according to Brent Hodges, a vanpool manager for 2Plus. Commuters Choice is a nationwide initiative for employers to offer a broad range of commuting choices to their employees, which includes tax incentives available to commuters.

There are several reasons why vanpooling is a viable transportation option for service members and civilian Tri-Command employees who commute to and from work, according to Hodges.

“Vanpooling is defined by groups of five or more people traveling in similar commute patterns, going to and from similar destinations, and on similar shifts agreeing to a rideshare arrangement,” Hodges said. “Vanpooling is an efficient and cost effective alternative transit mode. It saves money in gas, provides a reliable means of transportation, frees up a personal vehicle for other family members, and saves on personal (expenses).”

The SmartVan Program works on a volunteer-based driver system. Driver benefits include a fuel card and maintenance provided for the vehicle, free personal use of 150 miles per month and free transportation to and from work, according to Jodie Harper, the Lowcountry SmartVan Program manager.

“The driver must have a valid U.S. drivers license and be insurable,” Harper said. “2Plus provides the van, training for the driver and insurance for the driver.”

Vanpools can help lower congestion to the roadways and reduce the need for parking spaces, but there are other incentives that may benefit civilians working in the military community, according to Harper.

“It can be a great tool to reducing absenteeism and tardiness,” Harper said. “It can also be a tool for recruitment and retention of civilian employees. It allows you to recruit civilian employees from households that may not have considered working on base because of lack of transportation or distance in travel.”

In 2003, Lowcountry Council of Governments and the Atlanta consulting firm Day Wilburn Associates completed the Lowcountry Public Transportation Strategy for the four-county  (Beaufort, Jasper, Colleton and Hampton) region. Based on analysis of resources, opportunities and a wide variety of social, economic and transportation issues, the number one recommendation was to establish a regional vanpool program, according to Ginnie Kozak, the planning director for the LCOG.

“In late 2004, 2Plus was hired to assess the feasibility of initiating a Vanpool Pilot Project for commuters in the Lowcountry,” Kozak said.  “They spoke to 255 major employers (including human resources directors in the Tri-Command) in Beaufort County and found that the majority were very much in favor of the project.”

By conducting surveys, 2Plus found the level of support for a vanpool project was considerably higher in the Lowcountry than other parts of the U.S., which could indicate a future change to the local transit system, according to Kozak.

“In 2005 2Plus was engaged to get the ball rolling, so to speak,” Kozak said. “This is a pilot project. If it is successful it could lead not just to long-term vanpooling, but also to other new transportation initiatives in this area.”

To learn more about the Lowcountry SmartVan Program call Harper at 877-683-0372 ext. 252 or email jharper@2plus.com. Tri-command residents interested in vanpools may also contact Hodges at 877-683-0372 ext. 256 or email bhodges@2plus.com.