Oct. 30, 2009 FORT POLK, La. -- When looking at the pine trees that forest the grounds, it is difficult to imagine a place greener than Fort Polk, unless speaking of "green" in the context of environmental conscientiousness.
Because Fort Polk is woodsy, it is out of necessity that commuters must drive singly by car to and from work. With a low population density, there is not capital enough to support an electric rail or even a busing system.

But thanks to a federal government program, government employees can band together to reduce their impact on the environment. Two vanpools have been introduced to Fort Polk, one delivering commuters from Alexandria, another from DeRidder.

They are pooling through the U.S. Army Mass Transportation Benefit Program, signed into law April 2000, that grants active-duty service members, Department of Defense employees and non-appropriated fund employees up to $230 a month (not in actual cash) to use public transportation, or, in the absence of public transportation, a vanpool.

Those curious about the program should talk to Donald Whitaker, Fort Polk's traffic management specialist. If enough people show interest from one area (at the minimum a vanpool can start with four members), Whitaker mediates between vanpool members and the Department of Transportation, who funds the program.

"I deal with the Department of Transportation because they don't actually send these people money," said Whitaker. "They send them a voucher check, and they give that to the vendor to pay everybody's share of the van pool."

The vendor is VPSI Inc., both the largest vanpool vendor in the country, and the only vendor in the area. VPSI leases seven-, eight-, 12- and 14-passenger vans under different mileage contracts.

Members of the vanpool determine which van to lease under what contract according to the number of their members and the commute mileage. Whitaker takes the cost of the lease and divides it by the number of vanpoolers, and, unless that number exceeds $230, distributes the travel vouchers to the vanpoolers. Should the cost per member of a vanpool exceed $230, the members would pay the overage.

"We could go to a 12-passenger van in the hope that we pick up additional riders," said Terry Sadler, the primary driver of the Alexandria-Fort Polk vanpool. "The cost of the twelve-passenger van is $2,000 a month, so with eight riders we would be paying a shared cost of $150 a month out of pocket, but that, split eight ways, is still cheaper than if we were driving ourselves."

From each vanpool, members become primary and alternative drivers by submitting a form to VPSI so the company may investigate the prospective drivers' driving records. The primary driver is responsible for the gasoline credit card the company issues as part of the contract as well as maintenance of the vehicle. As recompense, the driver may use the van for personal errands within a given mile restriction.

The Alexandria vanpool drives 2,200-2,400 miles every month, and since the van's lease stipulates a maximum 2,500 miles per month, driving the van for personal use did not spur Sadler to volunteer to be the primary driver.

"When I drove myself, the cost of gas for my truck was close to $100 a week," said Sadler, "Add on the insurance and maintenance, you're looking at $500-600 a month. If you're driving in a vanpool, you don't have those costs, so it's almost like getting a pay raise."

One member of the Alexandria vanpool told her insurance company that she no longer drove to work, and her insurance dropped $600 a year.
Saving money was not the only reason the vanpoolers quit commuting individually.

"I made friends with every tree, rodent and rock on Highway 28 from here to Alexandria," said Paul Wilkinson, member of the vanpool. "It was time for a change."
In another way, Wilkinson, by joining the pool, is becoming better friends with the trees. With 14 participants in two vanpools, 12 vehicles are no longer on the road.

The largest detraction the poolers face is working around their new schedules. "I used to leave the house at seven or ten after," said Sadler. "I now leave the house at about 6:30 a.m. Where I used to get home at 5:30, I now get home at 6, so I'm adding about an hour to my day."
Whitaker looks forward to more vanpools in the future.

"There was interest in an Anacoco vanpool, but they haven't solidified a complete pool yet," he said. "I see Alexandria picking up more people, but that's all determined by participation. We can get 40 vanpools running. It would drive me nuts, but it would be great."

To find out more about the vanpool, call 531-2510 or email donald.whitaker1@us.army.mil.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16