Pr. Wil­liam app project aims to cut solo drives

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY LUZ LAZO luz.lazo@wash­post.com

By the time heavy con­struc­tion be­gins on the $2.3 bil­lion widen­ing of In­ter­state 66 out­side the Cap­i­tal Belt­way next year, com­muters in western Prince Wil­liam County will be able to sign up and pay for van-pool ser­vices through a smart­phone app. Oth­ers will be able to tap their phones to sum­mon a ride to a com­muter bus lot.

Two re­cently ap­proved projects em­brace the use of Uber­like apps to ex­pand com­mut­ing op­tions in this sprawl­ing area of North­ern Vir­ginia where car de­pen­dency is high, tran­sit is lim­ited and the once-pop­u­lar van-pool­ing ser­vices are in de­cline.

“This is not just new tech­nol­ogy for the area, it is also new tech­nol­ogy and ser­vice in an area that has been a bit of a desert for tran­sit op­tions,” said Chuck Steiger­wald, direc­tor of strate­gic plan­ning at the Potomac and Rap­pa­han­nock Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion (PRTC), which over­sees a re­gional van­pool ser­vice and runs com­muter buses from Prince Wil­liam to Wash­ing­ton.

The apps will be crit­i­cal, he said, to en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to use tran­sit and van-pool ser­vices dur­ing peak con­struc­tion on the I-66 ex­pan­sion, a project that also aims to change the way peo­ple move along the cor­ri­dor.

“They are de­signed to cre­ate that com­mut­ing cul­ture be­fore those lanes open up,” Steiger­wald said. “So in five years, you will have a dif­fer­ent mo­bil­ity pat­tern in this cor­ri­dor.”

The ini­tia­tives are part of a pack­age of 15 projects funded through the North­ern Vir­ginia Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion’s I-66 Com­muter Choice pro­gram, which will use toll rev­enue from the new 66 Ex­press Lanes. The lat­est set of projects, worth $12 mil­lion, were ap­proved last month by the Com­mon­wealth Trans­porta­tion Board and fo­cus on ex­pand­ing bus ser­vice and im­prov­ing ac­cess to park-an­dride fa­cil­i­ties, bus stops, and Metro­rail and Vir­ginia Railway Ex­press sta­tions.

The in­vest­ments are crit­i­cal for the trans­for­ma­tion of the I-66 cor­ri­dor, re­gional trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials say. The ex­pan­sion of I-66 out­side the Belt­way spans 22.5 miles from the Cap­i­tal Belt­way in Fair­fax County to Univer­sity Boule­vard in Gainesville in Prince Wil­liam. It will add high-oc­cu­pancy toll (HOT) lanes to the cor­ri­dor and ex­pand travel lanes to in­clude three gen­eral-pur­pose lanes in each di­rec­tion; new and ex­panded tran­sit ser­vice, in­clud­ing ad­di­tional park-and-ride lots; and me­dian space re­served for fu­ture rail ser­vice.

State trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials say the ex­pan­sion will help re­duce con­ges­tion along I-66, which ex­pe­ri­ences eight to 10 hours of grid­lock daily, in­clud­ing week­ends, and car­ries roughly 200,000 ve­hi­cles on an av­er­age day. But, of­fi­cials say, the plan is to move more peo­ple in the cor­ri­dor by get­ting as many as pos­si­ble to shift their com­mutes from driv­ing solo to rid­ing the bus or join­ing a car­pool.

The PRTC is plan­ning to launch a free, on-de­mand mi­cro­tran­sit ser­vice from the Gainesville and Hay­mar­ket neigh­bor­hoods to Om­niRide com­muter lots start­ing next sum­mer. PRTC of­fi­cials say the agency will de­velop an app to con­nect rid­ers to rides. The $1.1. mil­lion project will pro­vide trans­porta­tion from res­i­den­tial ar­eas to bus stops for com­muters who don’t take the bus be­cause of the chal­lenges of us­ing park-and-ride lots, which are al­ready at ca­pac­ity, of­fi­cials said.

The fund­ing will cover the cost of a soft­ware in­ter­face that will al­low ve­hi­cle op­er­a­tors to re­spond to com­muter re­quests with dy­namic, real-time rout­ing. It also will pay for ve­hi­cles, on­board ve­hi­cle hard­ware, tran­sit op­er­a­tions and ad­ver­tis­ing of the ser­vices.

In an­other high-tech ef­fort, the PRTC is cre­at­ing a plat­form for a flex­i­ble van-pool pro­gram that will con­nect rid­ers with van pools and fa­cil­i­tate pay­ment of fares. The $317,600 project will en­able the use of the tech­nol­ogy to po­ten­tially trans­form the way van pools op­er­ate in North­ern Vir­ginia, said Robert Schneider, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the PRTC.

Although van pools are a long-stand­ing com­mut­ing op­tion in North­ern Vir­ginia, cus­tomers have dwin­dled in the past decade as the re­gion’s com­mut­ing pat­terns have changed. More peo­ple are telecom­mut­ing, and more are us­ing VRE trains and com­muter buses. The ser­vices them­selves are partly to blame for the de­cline, of­fi­cials said, be­cause they lack the flex­i­bil­ity that to­day’s com­muters de­mand.

The rule, Schneider said, is that once you sign up for a van pool, “you have to ride with that same van pool every sin­gle day. If I need the van pool only a few days, I have no op­tion.” The PRTC wants to change that by cre­at­ing an on­line plat­form that al­lows van-pool providers to fill open seats with com­muters who need a ride only oc­ca­sion­ally.

“What we want to in­tro­duce is an­other op­tion that will al­low peo­ple to ar­range for a sin­gle ride on a van pool that has an empty seat,” Schneider said. There are as many as 560 van­pool­ers reg­is­tered with the Van­pool Al­liance. The North­ern Vir­ginia pro­gram works with 55 ven­dors, who op­er­ate as few as two or three van pools and as many as 50.

“The tech­nol­ogy piece comes in by al­low­ing ad hoc book­ing and also ar­rang­ing for pay­ment, be­cause right now, there is no pay­ment struc­ture for this,” Schneider said. “Van-pool­ers don’t charge for a sin­gle ride. We want to in­tro­duce a pro­gram that al­lows that to hap­pen. We think that will help van-pool­ers over time, main­tain eco­nomic fea­si­bil­ity and will ex­pand the at­trac­tive­ness of van-pool­ing.”

PRTC of­fi­cials say they hope the new pro­grams will be just two more op­tions for com­muters as con­struc­tion ramps up on the I-66 project. Al­ready, bus ser­vice from Prince Wil­liam to Wash­ing­ton has in­creased since the 66 Ex­press Lanes opened in De­cem­ber. The 10 miles of HOT lanes in­side the Belt­way are a sep­a­rate project that is part of the Trans­form 66 vi­sion.

The PRTC added com­muter bus trips in re­cent months, and in May, it of­fered half off Om­niRide ex­press bus fares as an in­cen­tive. The dis­counted fares will re­main in ef­fect dur­ing con­struc­tion, which is ex­pected to last four years, and ap­ply to buses run­ning from Manas­sas and Gainesville to Wash­ing­ton, the Pen­tagon and the Tysons Metro sta­tion.

Con­struc­tion is un­der­way on more park-and-ride fa­cil­i­ties, of­fi­cials said, adding that they an­tic­i­pate the tran­si­tion also could boost the cor­ri­dor’s cul­ture of “slug­ging,” or or­ga­nized hitch­hik­ing.

“Part of the ap­peal of these pro­grams is that they are nim­ble, flex­i­ble and tar­geted specif­i­cally to­ward the de­mo­graph­ics and needs of Prince Wil­liam County,” said Kate Mat­tice, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the North­ern Vir­ginia Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion, which se­lects the projects to be funded with the I-66 toll rev­enue. “They should also pro­vide a strong re­turn on in­vest­ment.”

Mat­tice said the ini­tia­tives are con­sis­tent with the goal of the I-66 Com­muter Choice pro­gram to move more peo­ple through the cor­ri­dor more ef­fi­ciently.

“Con­straints — such as a lack of avail­able park­ing or a work sched­ule that doesn’t al­low for join­ing a daily van pool — that pre­vent peo­ple from ac­cess­ing tran­sit make it more dif­fi­cult for us to achieve that goal,” she said. “PRTC’s on-de­mand com­muter lot shut­tles and flex­i­ble van-pool pro­gram are great ex­am­ples of us­ing tech­nol­ogy to tackle con­straints and get more con­stituents out of their cars and onto tran­sit.”

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