Car-Pool Group to Offer Day Use of Vehicles : Warner Center: The coalition of businesses has combined resources to find ways to reduce solo driving. The county-funded project, prompted by an employee survey, starts this summer.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's one of the most common excuses for not car-pooling: "I can't ride-share because I need my car during the day to run errands."

A coalition of businesses in Woodland Hills is eliminating that excuse with a novel concept: providing rental cars that their car-pooling employees can use during the day for business or personal use.

The project, which will begin this summer with funding from a county grant, is one of several being launched by a group of businesses at Warner Center that have pooled their resources to get employees out of their cars and reduce smog.

The nonprofit group is one of many, known as transportation management associations, that have sprouted throughout Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties in response to air-quality directives requiring employers to reduce the number of employees driving solo.

"We've had probably half the nationwide growth for TMAs right here in Southern California," said Jesse Glazer, a board member of the Assn. for Commuter Transportation, a Washington, D.C.-based society of transportation management specialists. "I think we've had a dramatic growth in them."

Five years ago, there were about 20 such groups nationwide, he said. At least that many now operate in Southern California alone.

Twelve such organizations have been formed in Los Angeles County--four of them in the San Fernando Valley. New transportation management groups also are forming in Santa Monica, West Hollywood, the San Gabriel Valley, Montebello, Huntington Park and Commerce.

Under these organizations, businesses can split the costs of meeting smog-reducing directives, including hiring a coordinator to organize and promote car pools or van pools, as well as commuter alternatives such as Metrolink. Each business usually pays a yearly fee for each of its employees. In some large employment centers, membership in such groups is required by law.

State and federal grants offered by local transportation agencies subsidize some groups. The car-rental program at Warner Center is being funded for a year through a $156,800 grant from the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

Programs initiated by these groups and other cities throughout the county are expected to eliminate more than 86,000 trips and 30 tons of automobile emissions each day, according to a report by the newly formed Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Many TMAs were formed in response to the South Coast Air Quality Management District's 1987 directive known as Regulation 15. It requires companies with more than 100 employees to design and manage "trip-reduction plans" with the goal of increasing the average number of people per car to 1.5.

In the San Fernando Valley, TMAs in Chatsworth and Burbank are encouraging employees to ride the Metrolink commuter trains by offering employee members a flat rate for taxis between job sites and Metrolink stops in those communities. Some businesses also subsidize Metrolink tickets.

The Van Nuys Transportation Management Assn. will begin a taxi program subsidized by the employers themselves in April, providing transportation between work and the Van Nuys Metrolink stop. Another Van Nuys program set to begin in April will use taxis to provide car-pool service for employees who live within eight miles of work.

The more common programs offered by these groups include guaranteed-ride-home programs for employees who car-pool and midday shuttles that they can use to visit restaurants and shops. They also reward cyclists and people who walk to work and offer subsidies to bus riders and car-poolers.

In addition to the car-rental program, the Warner Center Transportation Organization has a van-pool program with 70 vans that each day carry 1,000 employees to and from work. Glazer said it is the largest van-pool program for TMAs in the country.

The vans are driven by volunteer employees who lease the vehicles through the Warner Center group and are responsible for insurance, maintenance and gas costs. The employee drivers then collect from other van-poolers their share of the costs.

Christopher Park, executive director of the Warner Center organization, said the idea for the car-rental program came after 35% of Warner Center employees surveyed said they didn't car-pool because it left them stranded during the day.

"The idea came up from surveying," Park said. "It was pretty obvious."

During the first year of the program, the entire cost will be paid through the county grant, Park said. But it has not been determined how much, if anything, employees will pay for the program once the funding ends, he said. This and other questions will be answered after further studies and surveys are completed this summer, he said.

But the car-rental idea has already won the praises of several transportation experts.

"I think it's a great idea," said AQMD spokesperson Claudia Keith. "It's something we'd like to see more of."

But some transportation experts warn that TMAs are not a panacea.

Jim Sims, president of Commuter Transportation Services Inc., a nonprofit group that helps businesses establish ride-share programs, said such groups can fail without strong financing, a dedicated membership and a common understanding for the transportation problems that plague the region.

A transportation management group in downtown Los Angeles dissolved last year, he said, because its members did not have "a clearly perceived notion that there was a problem." He said business members dropped out because they felt they could meet their ride-sharing goals individually.

"I don't mean to throw cold water on TMAs in general, but the circumstances have to be right," he said.

Sims said the Warner Center group succeeds partly because it is well-funded: The center's developer was required by the city to set aside $5 million to mitigate traffic and parking problems. Moreover, the group serves a well-defined employment center with a dedicated membership of about 40 employers who share a perception for the transportation problems the center faces.

"It has all the requirements of a success," he said.

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