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Commuters Find Carpool Partners Through Database

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By SHANTEE WOODARDS
The Capital of Annapolis

KENT ISLAND, Md. (AP) — In Anne Arundel County, about 700 commuters are part of an online database that helps them find carpool partners. And as tough times have many searching for creative ways to penny pinch, more people are looking into the database and carpooling in general.

Take Leslie Delabar. She manages to save money on gas by making two extra stops during her morning commute.

The Kent Island resident’s first stop is to her day care provider, which is where she drops off her baby by 7 a.m. About 20 minutes later, she arrives in Annapolis to meet up with her carpool partner, Cindy Dooley. Their shared ride to jobs at the University of Maryland in College Park enables them to use the HOV lanes on Route 50 and cut down on gas and car maintenance. They drive together four days a week, saving about $500 a month combined.

They are among the roughly 12 percent of Maryland motorists who travel to work via carpool, a trend experts say is increasing because of high gas prices.

“It makes our lives easier,” said Delabar, who works for the university’s College of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. “It’s nice to share the experience with someone else, rather than pay the price of gas that I would be paying. I’d have to (get gas) twice a week had I not carpooled.”

In addition to the online carpool database, there are 10 van pools in the county, which refers to when a group splits the cost to rent a van. With fluctuating gas prices, transportation advocates said this mode can lead to a savings of $2,500 annually.

There also are some side benefits – carpoolers make new friends, use HOV lanes, split parking costs and occasionally get employer-sponsored benefits such as prime parking spaces. But there also are the downsides of a loss of independence, conflicting personalities and adhering to such a strict schedule that weather delays and closures can throw everything off.

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The numbers

The use of public transportation – including commuter bus and light rail – has been increasing nationwide, with Maryland’s ridership going up about 8 percent between June 2010 and June 2011, the latest numbers available from the American Public Transportation Association.

“People come and go in a carpool  situation,” said David Humphreys, executive director of the Annapolis Regional Transit Management Association. “We have a constant influx of new (carpool applicants). The easiest way to compare carpooling with driving alone is this is actually the most cost-effective way to make a compromise.”

It cost nearly $8,600 to drive a medium-sized sedan 15,000 miles a year in 2010, the latest figures available from AAA’s “Your Driving Costs” publication. And that’s low. AAA made the calculation based on average fuel costs of $2.88 per gallon. The $8,600 also includes routine maintenance, loan finance charges and depreciation. The agency has been providing the cost analysis since 1950, when gas sold for 27 cents per gallon.

The Transportation Sustainability Research Center traced the evolution of carpooling back to the car-sharing clubs of the 1940s and the energy crises in the 1970s. But the number of carpooling workers declined nationally since then – the largest drop coming between 1980 and 1990 – because of a drop in gasoline prices and improved fuel economy. Yet the numbers started to rise again in 2005, with nearly 11 percent of American workers using a carpool  to get to work.

Census figures show that more than 320,000 Marylanders used a carpool to get to and from work in 2009. These days, carpooling is in a phase where participants rely on ride-sharing services and the Internet. Over the next decade, a federal agency dedicated to researching carpools could spur growth, according to data presented at the 2011 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting.

Locally, ARTMA operates Commuter Connection, which acts somewhat like a dating service for aspiring commuters. Participants submit an application for the agency and it is thrown into a pool for other workers who live and/or work in the same geographic region.

The program also has some side bonuses, such as one day a year getting a free ride home if you’re working late and don’t have a ride home. Carpool participants also meet through casual conversations and other online sites.
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Carpool stories

Crofton resident Brian Richter has been carpooling for more than 30 years, and finds his partners through company bulletin boards or word of mouth. Now, he and two coworkers meet at 6 a.m. in Davidsonville to begin their commute to Rockville. Without them, he’d be spending $100 twice a week on gas. With his group, there is not much of a ritual other than the driver is in charge of the radio. And that is often tuned in to WTOP for traffic updates.

“On the Beltway, the days with accidents are the rule more than the exception,” said Richter, an economist with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “It almost makes the ride go easier if you have someone to complain to about how bad traffic is, or talk about sports.”

Gas prices were around $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008. That was when Deborah McLean, who works for the county Department of Health, realized it would be too costly to commute between Annapolis and her Delaware home without a carpool. A coworker introduced her to Merry McNeil, who works for the Department of Agriculture and was looking for a replacement carpool rider. They launched a partnership that resulted in them meeting up in Denton in the morning, then taking one car across the Bay Bridge and into Annapolis. Eventually, others joined their plan and now there are four of them who participate in the carpool.

McLean creates a driving schedule, so that everyone drives once or twice a week. They often arrive in Annapolis at 7 a.m., just when traffic is picking up. However, that has posed a few challenges. During the winter, no decision was made about delaying her office’s opening until after McLean already was on her way. She arrived, only to learn that the building would not open until 10 a.m.

“The weather is different here than on the Eastern Shore,” McLean said. “There’s no ice to get to work.”

The women’s driving schedule works around everyone’s appointments, so that the person with the errands will serve as the driver. One day a week, they treat themselves to the farmers market on Riva Road.

“We just step up for one another, and switch around if we have to,” said McNeil, a Dorchester County resident who estimates she’d be paying $90 a week for gas if it weren’t for her carpool. “This is probably the best carpool I’ve been in.”

Dooley, who travels to work with Delabar, had to travel to work alone this summer while Delabar was on maternity leave. She wound up spending $250 a month on gas.

“I’m thrilled she’s back to work now,” Dooley said. “In the summer, I was just going broke because gas goes higher then, too.”

Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http://www.hometownannapolis.com/

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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