There's a new incentive for Nebraska's thousands of workday commuters to carpool with their colleagues.
The state Roads Department has launched a program that uses federal money to subsidize rental vans for groups of seven to 15 people who are willing to share regular rides to work, school or other activities.
Called "vanpooling," the program will cover up to $400 each month toward the rental cost of a passenger van from Enterprise Rideshare. The subsidies are available across the state, but only a limited number may be claimed by commuters in Lincoln and Omaha.
Close to 4,000 vehicles commute each day between Nebraska's two largest cities. Elsewhere in the state, vanpooling could help people who lack cars of their own and who work at times when public transportation isn't available, said Kari Ruse, transit manager for the Roads Department.
"If you're working second shift at the prison or the hospital, then your transportation options are limited unless you have your own vehicle," Ruse said. "We have a lot of interest, for example, in Kearney: businesses like Tyson Foods and the Younes Conference Center, where they have shift workers."
Even for people who own vehicles, and even without a subsidy, vanpooling can save money.
A person traveling 100 miles per day can save up to $10,000 each year by reducing the costs of gas, vehicle maintenance and depreciation, the Roads Department estimates.
Some companies also offer pre-tax payroll deductions for mass transit, and most major auto insurers provide discounts to drivers who don't use their own vehicles for work.
Subsidized vanpools are already available statewide in Michigan, as well as in the Minneapolis, Kansas City and Des Moines metro areas.
Between Lincoln and Omaha, enough money is available to fund about 20 vanpools this year, 25 in 2018 and 30 in 2019. But groups traveling to or from Lincoln or Omaha are eligible for a separate rural subsidy as long as the destination or origin of their trip is outside either of those metro areas.
More money is available for rural vanpools, and the state could request additional federal support in those areas based on demand.
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The subsidies are provided through grants from the federal Highway and Transit administrations.
"We certainly hope that it expands and that it becomes self-sustaining and doesn't require a subsidy," Ruse said.
She has been working to establish the program for more than two years, after being approached by the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, or MAPA, a council of local governments that helps coordinate regional planning and development, including transportation, in the Omaha area.
MAPA has operated its own person-to-person carpool service — like a free Uber or Lyft — called MetrO! Rideshare, since 2008. But vanpooling is a better model in some ways because it is employer-based and taps into people's daily routines, said Mike Helgerson, MAPA's transportation and data manager.
"I imagine there will be employers, large and small, who will be interested in this."
Some entities in the state already have similar programs.
The University of Nebraska shuttles people between its engineering facilities in Lincoln and Omaha, and Gallup runs a bus from Lincoln to its headquarters on the Omaha riverfront.
Sarpy County leaders are also working to develop a new transit system to connect people in Omaha with booming employers in the suburbs, specifically those near Interstate 80 and Giles Road, Helgerson said.
Anyone can form a vanpool through the Roads Department program by contacting Cynthia Kinning, Enterprise sales manager, at 402-659-6027.
Subsidies are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and there are no income restrictions.
Vanpool groups designate their own drivers from within the group. Vans will be equipped with wi-fi, satellite radio, 24-hour roadside assistance, auto liability insurance and scheduled maintenance. The program also includes a guaranteed ride home at unscheduled times in case of emergencies.