County increases bonuses for employees who don’t commute alone

Even as more commuters around the Puget Sound region find other ways to get to work, Snohomish County is struggling to get its own employees out of their cars.

About 64 percent of county workers drive alone to the main government campus in Everett.

County officials hope to reduce that number starting in 2008 by paying county employees a bigger bonus to walk, bike, vanpool or catch a bus.

With higher subsidies, the move might persuade more of the 1,500 workers to stop driving to work alone.

Starting Jan. 1, the county will pay up to $25 per month to regional transit riders, an increase from the current $15 a month subsidy. Workers who walk, bike or ride Everett Transit will receive $18 a month, a $3 increase from current rates. Carpoolers get a discount at the parking garage.

“We’re hoping to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles coming to the county campus each day and to encourage participation in other modes, like carpools and vanpools,” said Brian Parry, executive office administrator for County Executive Aaron Reardon.

The County Council voted 3-2 on the proposal, with the Democratic majority prevailing over the two Republican councilmen.

As a major employer with thousands of workers, county government is required by the state to reduce its number of solo drivers.

Since 1991, the Commute Trip Reduction law required the county central campus to cut solo drivers from 80 percent in 1993 to 52 percent by 2005. It failed to reach the goal.

In 2005, the number of solo drivers heading to the county campus reached the 65 percent mark, sliding from a better showing of 57 percent in 2003.

The state Legislature in 2005 extended deadlines by four years, and relaxed requirements — including those for Snohomish County government. Its new goal is 57 percent.

The county also promised Everett it would reduce the number of solo drivers to below 60 percent by 2005, a goal met only briefly in 2003.

While the county’s performance has lagged in recent years, it still is heading in the right direction, County Councilman Dave Somers said.

“The incentives certainly help the program a lot,” he said.

Overall, the county is setting aside more than $87,000 for the program.

Snohomish County used to spend more before 2005.

The county paid $36 a month for vanpool passes, $20 for walkers and bikers and covered the actual costs of transit passes.

Budgets were slashed in 2005 and the incentives and subsidies were changed to a flat $15 monthly subsidy. After the cuts, vanpool participation dropped 12 percent and bus ridership by 30 percent, county transportation specialist Jay Larson said.

“We’re hoping to get some of these people back,” Larson said.

Overall, county government employees were paid $158,000 in commute subsidies in 2004, a figure that dropped to $53,000 the following year and $45,000 in 2006. So far this year, about $36,000 has been paid to county government employees, Larson said.

The reduction led to a drop in bus riders, vanpoolers, walkers and bikers from 344 employees in December 2004 to 208 employees in May 2007.

Paying people to walk to work — especially if they already were — doesn’t do anything for traffic congestion, Republican John Koster said, so he voted against the proposal.

“Everyone should be so lucky. I mean, come on,” Koster said. “I’m glad that people walk, but do they need an $18 subsidy the same as the people who take the bus? I’m all for commute trip reduction, but we have to be reasonable and wise with our resources.”

The number of people riding buses and walking to work in the Puget Sound area increased between 1999 and 2006, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council. In that time, the percentage of solo drivers commuting in the region dropped from 79 percent to 76 percent.

Across nine counties in Washington, employers with 100 or more workers reported that about 66 percent of their workers drove alone in 2005. The figures are part of a 2006 analysis of the state Commute Trip Reduction program.

Major employers, such as Snohomish County, reported a drop in solo drivers from 71 percent in 1993 to about 66 percent in 2005.

“We’re right on target with where everyone else is,” Parry said. “We have seen a slight increase in the number of single occupancy vehicles, so we thought it was appropriate to take a step towards reducing the single-occupancy vehicles and give more incentives.”

“Since 2005, we have actually gone down 1 percent. Our target is 60 percent. We have four more percent to go. We’re optimistic we’re going to continue to make progress.”

Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or jswitzer@heraldnet.com.

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