When the COVID-19 pandemic is finally over, transit agencies across the region will compete eagerly to get their riders back. One in particular that was just taking off in popularity will try to build on its once-growing success.
The Vanpool Alliance, a public-private partnership run by the Potomac Rappahannock Transportation Commission that at its peak worked with with over 600 daily vanpools, is hoping a new grant to defray parking costs in some of the most high-demand areas in the region will ease one of the hurdles for its providers and riders.
PRTC Executive Director Bob Schneider said Vanpool Alliance is the fifth largest such program in the nation, providing monthly payments to the area’s vanpool services to offset commuting costs. In return, the participating services report route and ridership data to OmniRide, operated by PRTC, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which can then receive funds from the Federal Transit Administration based on the data.
In a good year, Schneider says, the service generates almost $5 million more than it costs. OmniRide has used that money in the past to buy and repair buses, while NVTC has largely used the funding to pay a part of its commitment to Metro. Since the partnership was started in 2018, it grew every year until the pandemic began.
While a number of big van operators run service up and down the Interstate 66 and 95 corridors as part of the alliance, many individual commuters organically create small groups of travellers with similar commuting routes and go from there, selling monthly seats in exchange for expenses like van payments and fuel.
Naturally, 2020 did not count as a good year, but vanpool ridership proved far more durable than other long-haul commuting methods like OmniRide’s commuter lines or the Virginia Railway Express. Whereas those services saw ridership fall by over 80% once the pandemic took hold, there are just under half as many commuter vans going north on I-95 every morning and returning south in the evening. All told the alliance has just over 400 active routes still in operation.
“From what we’ve heard locally, people see vanpooling as a better choice than maybe slugging because you know the people on your vanpool, there’s not as many random people on your roster. It’s kind of your own commuting pod almost,” said Ben Matters, the Vanpool Alliance program manager.
The most popular starting points are Fredericksburg and Stafford, which ultimately drop commuters at various points around Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria and Washington. Some even travel all the way to Montgomery County, Md.
The I-395 grant would allow Vanpool Alliance to subsidize some of the cost of parking vans during the workday, particularly in expensive areas like Washington and Arlington. Because vanpools are driven by the commuters they serve, they’re typically parked at the last stop until the return trip.
“[Operators] said it can be a stumbling block when you have to pay $200, $250 a month to park a vehicle … they need to come out of pocket for that,” Matters said.
When the pandemic is over, OmniRide and the Vanpool Alliance want to offer an additional incentive for vanpool operators to return to the marketplace. Aside from the federal funding benefit to the transit authorities, vanpools are intended to reduce congestion, especially in places where services from OmniRide or VRE are less accessible.
“These applications will, we hope, allow the program to build back to a point of strength so it is positioned for a future where it can continue to provide a direct vanpool benefit to aid in congestion relief,” Schneider told InsideNoVa in an email. The additional money would also lessen pressure on other funding sources.
The application for the 395 Commuter Choice program through the NVTC is one of 11 that came from PRTC jurisdictions, requesting a total of $10.4 million in funding, though five of the seven applications from OmniRide are for continuing service, like Stafford to Pentagon and Washington commuter service
The second round of 395 Commuter Choice grant applications are currently being reviewed by NVTC, drawing on toll revenues from the I-395/95 corridor, operated by TransUrban. Ben Owen, the NVTC’s Commuter Choice manager, said toll-paying traffic was up to 60% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020, but revenues were only at 30% of pre-pandemic levels.
Revenues from the I-66 corridor have dropped more sharply during the pandemic because tolls are only collected during peak hours. As a result, Commuter Choice grant funding could be significantly impacted for that corridor.
But the commission expects to have enough revenue to cover the $26.2 million funding requests for the two fiscal years. It recently received its annual payment from TransUrban for the full $15.4 million amount and expects to have roughly $30 million available for projects.
Prince William County itself submitted just one application for a 395 grant, requesting $2.8 million for the Horner Road park-and-ride lot that services OmniRide passengers as well as slug lines on I-95. OmniRide also requested money to renew enhanced bus service from the Transit Center to the Franconia-Springfield Metro, from Dale City to Ballston and Quantico to the Woodbridge VRE station.