TransOptions : America's Longest Running Station Car Program
By Bill Moore
Created by the New Jersey Department of Transportation and the state Transit agency in 1997, MacRides as it was then known, is a pilot program to encourage more commuters to use the region's commuter trains instead of private cars. While commuters like the idea of not having to drive in rush hour traffic, they found that getting from the train station to their workplace is often problematic. For many it is just easier and more convenient, despite the hassles of rush hour traffic, to drive their own cars to and from work.
But what if a way could be found to have a dedicated car waiting for you at the station everyday, one that you drive to work, use during the day and then leave at the station at night?
Based on this enticing premise, the MacRides folks who manage the program for New Jersey DOT and Transit -- started talking to a number of local corporations, including Lucent, Bauer and Verizon Wireless, about helping fund just such an initiative for their employees.
State planners selected Morristown as the location of the pilot program. Located one hour west of New York, the community has a population of just over 16,000 (1990 census) and is characterized by John Palmoski, TransOption's transportation planner, as upper middle class.
In addition to introducing the concept of station cars in the Northeast, planners went one step further and decided to use electric vehicles in the program. They picked the only practical choice at the time and still the only one available at this writing the Solectria Force. The Force is a converted Geo Metro that utilizes Solectria electric drive components, including low-cost lead-acid batteries that give the car a practical range of between 40-50 miles. Since the Force is also the only 4-door, 4 passenger EV available, it proved an ideal choice for hauling several employees in a car pool arrangement.
The pilot program was initially funded for three years, which ended in 2000. It is now in its four year of operation, which is an encouraging sign to Palmoski and demonstrates the feasibility of the concept. According TransOption's web site corporate participants in the program include Lucent, GPU Energy, Bauer, and Verizon Wireless, each of which funds the program for a modest fee of $100 a month per vehicle. The companies provide charging facilities and designate one commuter as the principle vehicle driver. The vehicles are then available during the day for employee errand runs, returning in the evening to the Morristown train station where they are recharged over night.
Palmoski told EVWorld that the companies participating in the program do so for several reasons. They get positive publicity from the program since each corporation has one or two vehicles dedicated exclusively to it, and as a result each carries the company logo. Interestingly, the cars are leased by the corporation from the New Jersey DOT. TransOptions manages the vehicles, making sure they are kept in running order.
The twenty employees taking part in the program clearly benefit as well. They can leave their personal cars at home. Arriving by train leaves them fresh for the day, keeping them happy and productive. Palmoski says that employees who use the program have become quite dependent on it and don't want to drive their own vehicles to work anymore.
The station car program also helps reduce traffic congestion in the region -- albeit by an infinitesimally small number -- while reducing air pollution. Palmoski estimates that the nine cars currently used in the program results in some twenty vehicles being left at home.
Since the Morristown experiment is, in effect, a combination station car and car pool program, TransOptions also provides participants with emergency pickup services in the case of a family medical emergency or an employee has to work late a particular day.
The average trip from the train station to the employee's work place is between ten and fifteen miles, Palmoski estimates, easily within the range of the Force, even with four passengers on board. In the four plus years of operation, each vehicle has accumulated between 15,000 20,000 miles. He adds that Solectria has told him that the batteries appear to be in excellent shape and good for many, many more miles. The only problem that occasionally crops up occurs on cold winter mornings. Despite having heaters which can keep the batteries relatively warm overnight, the cars are still a bit sluggish in the morning. On at least two occasions this past Winter, drivers reported the cars acting a bit temperamental after a cold night. However, Palmoski doesn't see the problem as significant enough to warrant any correction measures at this time.
The Ideal Station Car Isn't Electric
"I hate to say it, but I think a hybrid would probably be the best option because it would allow even greater distance on the vehicle if the company wanted to take it on a business trip in another town, they could actually do that. So probably a hybrid vehicle would have been the best overall vehicle to use as a station car."
As TransOption's transportation planner, Palmoski is looking at various other options though for the time being he is committed to the Forces for another year. He's considering the potential of car sharing and the use of vehicles fueled by propane. "We've had such great success with this program that all of our options are still pretty open," he commented.
A Waiting List
The fact that the program has survived beyond the end of its original funding speaks volumes about the potential of this concept. So too does the fact that if you are a Lucent employee, you'll have to get on a waiting list if you want to join the program because two of the three cars leased by Lucent for its two plant locations are full, Palmoski reported.
The real constraint on the program right now is the amount of parking in front of the Morristown train station. There is only enough room for current number of vehicles, so if demand for the service warranted adding more EVs something Palmoski isn't opposed to investigating the limiting factor is parking space. One of the appeals of the program is the fact that the cars have reserved some of the best spots in the parking lot. To acquire more space is wrought with political difficulties, he assured EV World.
"Parking at the station comes at a premium," he said. "To have the spaces we have at this point is a fantastic thing. So to expand the program would take a lot of negotiating and politicking. It would be a struggle, to say the least, but we would love it if we could get more EVs down there."
Would he consider looking at a larger vehicle with more passenger capacity, something like the Chrysler EPIC electric minivan, we asked him? Not really, he replied.
"We really do enjoy our relationship with Solectria. They've really been great when it comes to getting the car fixed and overall they've been a great enjoyment to work with."
Beyond Public Funding
With each of the four corporations paying just $100 a month for each vehicle, the state has to pick up the rest of the costs. However, there appears to be enough support to continue funding it for at least another year, Palmoski asserts. The big question is, can a program like this work without being subsidized? The answer to that isn't clear at this point. The participating corporation and its employees would have to pick up the rest of the costs. Whether they would or not, remains to be seen.
Finally, Palmoski advises that if other communities are interested in starting a similar program that they first focus on establishing effective lines of communications between local government and participating NGOs and corporations. In his view this is one of the most important reasons for the success of the Morristown experiment.
blog comments powered by Disqus