Monday, November 5, 2007
The Green Road To Work
Published: Monday, November 5, 2007
By Dorothy Pellett
Burlington Free Press Correspondent
Incentives for transportation alternatives can be subtle or as direct as payments applied to the cost of hybrid cars. Increasingly, Vermont businesses are developing plans to encourage employees to adopt greener transportation.
"Because of its size, Vermont has the potential to be the leader in innovative and creative solutions. Businesses have the opportunity to get together to share ideas," said Andrea Cohen, public policy coordinator for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. "They are talking with their employees about their needs."
Last month, Green Mountain Power began an incentive program that offers employees $1,500 toward the purchase of a new car that is within the EPA's Smart Way Elite category of hybrids, or $750 toward a used car in that category. Included are the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid. The EPA Smart Way Elite designation is based on mileage per gallon and on emission of gases that scientists say contribute to global warming.
Dorothy Schnure, Green Mountain Power manager of corporate communications, said no employees have taken advantage of the program in the short time it has been offered.
"People put a lot of thought into what kind of car they buy," she said. "A lot of employees have inquired."
Schnure said nine company cars, used by meter readers and others, are hybrid vehicles.
"We encourage employees to use one of the company hybrids for business trips," she said, adding that GMP's fleet has used biodiesel fuel for two years.
Recent additions to company vehicles are two GEMs (Global Electric Motorcars), bubble-top minis that employees will use for errands on streets with speed limits under 40 mph. Ben & Jerry's Homemade is among Vermont businesses offering hybrid car incentives, paying $1,000 toward purchase of any hybrid car.
"Incentives encourage employees to make right decisions about environmental choices. It is part of the social mission of our business," said Andrea Asch, Ben & Jerry's manager of natural resources. "On their own, many employees are car pooling," she said.
Bicycle racks and showers are available for employees who ride to work, and the company headquarters in South Burlington is located on the bus line. Ben & Jerry's participates in the annual Vermont Drive Out Day, Asch said, raising awareness of public transportation, car pooling and bicycle riding.
When Jan Blittersdorf, CEO and president of NRG Systems in Hinesburg, was asked what the company gains by providing incentives for hybrid car purchases and home energy efficiency, she said, "It's an easy question to answer. There are intangible and real benefits. It is really gratifying to me to see other people embracing the technology. Morale is higher -- people appreciate this. There has been philosophical encouragement for a long time; we needed to put something financial underneath. Many say they have thought about it but wouldn't have taken the step without the incentives."
Out of 80 employees at NRG, 19 have purchased a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, the two vehicles offered.
Electrical engineer Chris Tall of Essex chose the Prius after gettingbecoming acquainted with cars driven by others. "The vehicle has been fantastic," he said, "and the incentive makes it worthwhile. Every year they pay $1,000 until the payments equal the price of the car."
Unlike other companies questionedinterviewed, NRG's payments are adjusted so employees receive $1,000 after income tax. Blittersdorf said NRG encourages bicycling and walking to work, and showers are provided. The company is building a path connecting to Commerce Street in Hinesburg with an elevated walkway over Patrick Brook.
"A committee is actively working on plans for car pooling," she said.
Tim Shea, second vice president for facilities, purchasing and contracting at National Life Group in Montpelier, said he created an alternate transportation program in May. "I am trying to bring awareness to our employees about environmental consciousness and carbon footprint impacts," Shea said. "We fund the incentives with money received from our recycling program of paper, aluminum and plastic products."
More than 140 employees have registered for the program, with at least 100 participating each month. The goal is serious, but the implementation has an element of fun. Employees complete a monthly scorecard, track points and draw for prizes.
They also receive benefits for consistency in smart commuting. Commuting to work by bicycle six times a month earns a free tune-up. Drivers of car pools that make at least one trip a week will be are eligible for a $25 gas card. Walking or running to work an average of once a week earns a $25 gift certificate for shoes; and riding the bus once a week snags a 10-ride punch card. Shea also suggests The Vermont RideShare program -- found at www.vermontrideshare.org/carpooladds.htm.
Some benefits of alternate transportation accrue not from cash in hand, but from enjoyment of quiet surroundings and concern for the global environment. Melinda Moulton is CEO and re-developer of Main Street Landing on the Burlington waterfront, the renovated Union Station, CornerStone building, Wing building, Lake and College building, and 102 Lake St. Moulton said the buildings and the landscaping were designed to support pedestrian movement.
"Pedestrians can access the lake through the buildings, and the art gallery makes it a pleasurable experience to be on foot." she said. "I'm very committed to getting people out of their cars and into public transportation. Cars are a large piece of energy use.
"The big thing we did was redeveloping the Union Station. We have a train canopy and a handicap lift, waiting for the return of passenger rail when Burlington and Vermont realize it is a very important transit mode. It would be a huge benefit for the employees of our tenants."
Moulton said the project was built next to the bike path, with bicycle racks and lockers and a covered bus stop.
"The benefit (of public transportation) is the protection of our earth and keeping the sense of localism. We don't have to build as much parking. When developers have to build parking, rental rates must be higher; small businesses can't afford them."
Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility hosts networking events and forums where businesses can share ideas. It will hold its fall conference in Brattleboro on Nov. 13.
NRG Systems Inc. employee Chris Tall of Essex and his new Toyota Prius hybrid. The Hinesburg company helped him purchase the car as part of its program to encourage staff to invest in fuel-efficient vehicles.
MYESHA GOSSELIN, for the Free Press