Anybody who ventures onto Baton Rouge’s reliably clogged interstates at rush hour can deduce that many commuters are crisscrossing the region to get to work, most of the time driving alone in their cars.
The Baton Rouge Clean Air Coalition is looking to change that, proposing a new program that would connect commuters online to organize carpools, hopefully cutting down on the number of solo drivers heading onto the roads. The goal is to reduce traffic congestion, curtail air pollution and possibly even aid economic development in the region.
It’s a tall order for a small program, but proponents hope it can be a key component to changing how people in Baton Rouge get to their jobs.
It’s not a new idea, but for various reasons, the concept of organizing carpools never got legs in the Baton Rouge area. When an online carpooling system was presented to business and industry leaders years ago, there was positive feedback, but not much happened.
“Everybody left saying, ‘This looks like a good idea,’ but we couldn’t figure out a way to get it funded,” said Mike McDaniel, executive director of the coalition. “This time, I think we may have it.”
The Capital Region Planning Commission will tap part of a $100,000 grant from the state Department of Transportation and Development to purchase computer software to run the carpool system.
“We’ve been looking at it for a while,” said Jamie Setze, Capital Region Planning Commission executive director.
A request for proposals from software companies will go out soon, and it’s possible that a selection could be made by the end of the year.
“The real element that would make it go is to get some big employers involved,” McDaniel said. “It’s not going to work if we don’t get buy-in from everybody.”
The coalition is made of representatives from a cross-section of groups, including businesses, transportation organizations and the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Setze said he’s already started meeting with some of the larger employers in the planning region, which includes East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Livingston, Ascension and Iberville parishes.
There are a number of people who travel from Lafayette to Baton Rouge every day for work, Setze said, and the program would be accessible to them, as well.
The system highlighted at the coalition’s most recent meeting is Trapeze’s GreenRide software, which uses an Internet-based registration and format to connect riders and drivers based on a number of criteria. This is not a for-profit arrangement, and if there were any exchange of money, such as sharing gasoline costs, that’s strictly between the people involved, explained Tony Gale, a Greenride program manager.
The commuters log the number of miles in their trip, which helps calculate the money saved, as well as the amount of air pollution reduced. In other cities, incentives — such as a raffle, gift cards or even cash — are offered to encourage people to document their commutes.
“When this is working well, it’s a great tool to report on reduction of emissions,” McDaniel said.
The reduction would help the region meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ozone standards, as well as reducing traffic congestion.
“I’m just convinced we’re not going to build ourselves out of this traffic mess,” McDaniel said.
Other cities that have used the online commuter connection program include Chicago, Redmond, Washington, Cleveland, Detroit, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and New Orleans, Gale said. One of the most successful has been in Redmond, Washington, where the support of the largest employer in the area, Microsoft, has spurred participation.
“It’s kind of an uphill thing for Baton Rouge people, generally because people just don’t like to get out of their cars,” McDaniel said.
Struggles implementing the New Orleans program show that carpooling can be a hard sell. The program has been running in the metro New Orleans area since 2011 but never had enough funding to do aggressive outreach. So far, only about 300 people have signed up.
That should change by early next year, as the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission plans to get funding that will allow it to do much more public outreach about the program and get large employers on board, as well, said Meredith Soniat, a planner with the commission.
A more aggressive program could help reduce traffic problems and help address transportation needs for workers who live in urban areas but are commuting to the more rural areas where the oil and gas boom is occurring.
Air quality is also a concern for the metro New Orleans area because that region of the state might not be able to meet tougher ozone standards expected to be imposed by EPA. Areas that are in noncompliance with federal ozone standards can face complications in getting transportation project funding and in attracting new industries, she said.
When industry is looking to locate in the area, she said, “one of the first things they ask is are you nonattainment.”
As more people use the GreenRide program, that will contribute to the ability of the commission’s area of Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes to keep meeting that ozone standard, Soniat said, even if that standard is made tougher.
“This is just one of the ways we’re trying to get ahead of the game,” she said. Although the cost of getting a carpooling network set up isn’t expected to be much, the real trick is finding the money or sponsors who can help pay for public awareness campaigns and for the minimal incentives that keep people reporting back, McDaniel said.
One way to do that would be for industry to help pay for some of that additional promotional work. In return, the website emission counts could offer proof of reductions in ozone-causing pollution, which could then be transferred to emissions credits that are in increasingly short supply.
These emissions credits are used by industry if they are doing new construction or expansions in certain areas of the state to show that there is no net worsening of air quality from the industrial work.
The ride-sharing would be just one of a number of projects that could be made available to industries to earn emission credits. Since the amount of pollution reduced would be greater than the amount allowed by the credits earned, the program would result in gradual permanent reductions in ozone-causing pollution, explained Michael Vince, DEQ senior scientist.
Rules would need to be changed and approved by EPA before this type of alternative emission credit system could be put in place, Vince said.
“It just makes sense to spend money in a smart way to get (pollution) reductions,” Vince said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.