What's driving vanpool study?
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:05 PM
"Among ferry commuters, car-pools and van-pools are increasingly popular. Among administrators, they are enigmatic.And so, fearing potential overloads and abuses of its high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) program, Washington State Ferries last month began a study to examine patterns of HOV use - and issued a moratorium on new HOV permits for the three earliest Bainbridge-Seattle commuter runs.What I didn't want to do was make the problem any worse, said Mike Anderson, operations manager for the southern region, and then come back to these people and say 'we need to pull your permits away.'Under the rules, carpoolers and vanpoolers must use their year-long permits for at least two months, and must ride the ferry at least three times a week. HOVs confer an advantage to commuters because, amidst long lines of cars that begin to stack up more than a half hour before peak-hour sailings, carpoolers and vanpoolers are guaranteed a place on the boat as long as they arrive 10 minutes early.Vanpools also pay a modest, one-time permit fee and subsequently receive exemption from car fare exacted from automobile users at toll booths on both sides of the sound.Yesterday, WSF lifted the freeze on new permits after initial studies revealed adequate access and parking spaces for those sharing rides at the Winslow terminal.Ferry workers and riders say there was never a question that the system worked smoothly.I don't know anybody in a vanpool who has any problems with the way the system is working on the Bainbridge side, said John Pizzo, who has taken HOVs to work for the past two years.Terminal worker Mike Zuarri concurred that parking lot capacity and access for vanpools and carpools isn't an issue.Once in a while we might have to wrap them around (the side of the parking lot), he said, but not very often.But the moratorium was also issued, Anderson said, because he feared what would happen if a large number of HOV users were registered but did not car-pool frequently. You have a commitment to let them on if they actually show up, he said, which could lead to overloads if everyone with an HOV permit tried to ride on the same day.To address that potential problem, the HOV study - initiated June 5 - will continue to look at when existing permit holders actually ride the ferry, in an attempt to weed out those who do not meet the minimum usage requirements.Enforcing the use requirements may eventually entail an electronic monitoring system such as bar codes scanned through windshields, Anderson said.It is an excellent commute reduction system for a city that doesn't lend itself to traditional commute reduction systems like light rail, said Pizzo, who vanpools to his job at Microsoft in Redmond. The vans do the same thing without having to change the infrastructure.Popularity of the vanpool system has increased with the population on Bainbridge, Pizzo said, and at the beginning of June he applied for a new permit to allow his growing commuter group to split into a second van.The provider of the commuter vans, King County Metro, leased him a new vehicle, but unfortunately, he submitted his vanpool permit application to WSF shortly after the moratorium was enacted.He then hit a brick wall for several weeks, until he again requested a permit and CC'd his inquiry to Rep. Phil Rockefeller, King County Metro, and the Microsoft Commute Reduction Program.His permit came in early July.I was very squeaky, Pizzo said.Yesterday, a moratorium on select HOV permits was also lifted at the Bremerton terminal, but remained in effect in Southworth, where access problems persist, Anderson said.Bainbridge commuters say the only continuing HOV problems occur at the Seattle terminal on Fridays, when summer tourists overflow from the parking lot to the street and prevent carpools and vanpools from using their privileges for guaranteed boarding rights. But that's not something for which riders should expect immediate solutions. Anderson offered a comparison:If you are going down the freeway and the traffic is bound up and the carpool lane is a half-mile away, he analogized, it doesn't mean you should be able to drive on the shoulder to get to the carpool lane.Although Initiative 695 reduced the number of summer boats serving Bainbridge from three to two, Erickson anticipates smooth sailing from the island side for HOV users at least until this fall, when van loads of university students may fill any empty space in the popular diamond lanes."