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Latest Transit Incentive: A Free Ride

TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

Free trips are usually reserved for TV game show winners or airline customers with frequent-flier mileage. But congestion-weary Southland commuters may get free bus and train rides soon as part of a new bid to get solo drivers out of their cars.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments (SCAG) on Thursday is scheduled to announce a new program in which participating employers will distribute vouchers for free travel to their workers. The employees, in turn, can use the vouchers for bus and Blue Line light-rail trips, SCAG spokesman Cesar Vargas said. The vouchers are tax deductible for the employer up to $21 a month each.

The program will serve Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties but will not involve Amtrak trains, officials said.

Although many large employers already subsidize bus or rail fares for their workers--typically 30% to 50%--SCAG officials believe that companies will want to participate in the program because it will help them avoid being fined under the stiff provisions imposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District to reduce solo commuting.

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A private firm, the Voucher Corp., based in Los Alamitos, will relieve corporate transportation managers of the administrative burden of running such an employee-benefit program, SCAG officials said.

Under the plan, participating employers will purchase any number and amount in vouchers--called TransitCheks--they want from the Voucher firm. The value of the vouchers will be determined by the employer when the order is placed.

Transit operators, including the Southern California Rapid Transit District and the Orange County Transit District, have agreed to accept TransitCheks as cash, and they will convert them to passes or tokens as needed.

As a safeguard, however, TransitCheks cannot be converted directly into cash.

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The program is scheduled to begin in the next few weeks, officials said.

Fernando del Rio, another SCAG spokesman, said the Voucher Corp. will print and distribute the TransitCheks.

Del Rio acknowledged, however, that few if any employers have been lined up to participate and that recruitment is still a big unknown.

“I’ve only heard of one or two companies that have expressed an interest so far,” Del Rio said.

Sheila Irani, a consultant with the Voucher Corp., said the program is an 18-month pilot project that is being paid for in part by federal grants. She said the company, a subsidiary of the Paris-based Accor hotel and restaurant conglomerate, was one of five to compete for the project.

Irani said the company will collect fees of 15 to 55 cents on each TransitChek sold, based on the volume purchased, to cover overhead. The company hopes to become the permanent contractor after the pilot project ends.

She said companies such as Pacific Bell and AT&T; have expressed interest but that they have not signed up yet “because we don’t even have a brochure or a product to give them yet.”

SCAG President John Flynn said in a prepared statement: “In order to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality in Southern California, mass-transit use must be increased.” The voucher system, he added, offers employees a “simple, cost-efficient way to improve their daily commute through the use of mass-transit systems.”

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Officials said few companies now subsidize employee use of mass transit for more than $15 per month per employee, but that some are contributing as much as $140.

Diane Vargo, an OCTD marketing manager, said that her agency gives employers a 2% discount on employees’ monthly bus passes and that the RTD does not offer them any price reductions.


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