In 2017, the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT) partnered with Enterprise to pilot Go NEWhere, a vanpooling program.
NDOT subsidizes commuter-based vanpools up to $400 per month. Each vanpool carries between 7 and 15 passengers (including the driver). Including the subsidy, it costs between $1,000 and $1,200 to borrow a van per month. A Go NEWhere participant in a van with 14 other people is responsible for paying about $40 per month, which saves them lots of money compared to driving personal vehicles for their commutes.
Go NEWhere receives federal funding from two sources:
The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) program at the Federal Highway Administration; and the
Section 5311 formula grant for rural areas at the Federal Transit Administration.
In 2019, 29 total vanpool groups were participating in GoNEWhere. Some of these groups were commuting between Lincoln and Omaha and to or from rural factories.
Go NEWhere Vanpools is a vanpool subsidy program available across Nebraska. Through this program, the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT) provides a subsidy of up to $400 per month to groups who rent vans from Enterprise for carpooling to and from work. The program is funded through grants from the Federal Highway and Transit Administrations and aims to facilitate greater mobility, particularly in rural areas, while reducing the number of cars on roads throughout the state.
The $400 state subsidy covers about one-third of the monthly cost for the van’s lease, maintenance, and fuel. Vanpool group members are then invoiced monthly for the remaining costs. Two years after the program’s initial launch in 2017, 29 total vanpool groups were registered with NDOT.
The Go NEWhere program launched in June 2017 as a three-year contract between the NDOT Transit Section and Enterprise Rideshare. The idea for the program came from the Omaha Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, the local metropolitan planning organization. Subsidized vanpools were already available statewide in Michigan and also in the Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Des Moines areas. Kari Ruse, Transit Manager at NDOT, worked on program development for more than two years before the launch. Although NDOT hoped for several rental car agencies to participate in the program, only Enterprise responded to the request for proposal (RFP).
According to that RFP, the goal of the turnkey vanpool service was to “provide commuters with alternative mode of transportation that is cost-effective, reliable and environmentally friendly.” At the end of the 3-year contract, NDOT would use the data to determine if the program is feasible long-term.
From the perspective of the state’s transit agency, the vanpool program serves to facilitate greater mobility, particularly in rural areas. From Enterprise’s perspective, the program helps to have more company vans rented. Two years after the program’s launch, enrollment remains too low to suggest that either goal is being achieved to the extent desired.
As of August 2019, 29 groups were registered with the state: 3 groups traveling between urban centers of Omaha and Lincoln, and 26 groups on other routes. The most common group consists of 15 low-income urban workers traveling together to jobs in a rural factory, such as a poultry processing plant.
The monthly rental fee for the Enterprise vans (including the lease, maintenance, and fuel costs) tends to be around $1000 depending on the model and route. NDOT then pays up to $400 of that total. This leaves a cost of approximately $600 divided among all participants. Assuming a full van of 15 participants, each member is then responsible for a monthly cost of $40. The University of Nebraska is currently working on a cost-benefit analysis that is expected to be completed in September 2019.
Additional savings: “Some employers may also offer a pre-tax payroll deduction for mass transit, which is allowable under federal tax code”, the state’s formal press briefing on the program asserted. “In addition, almost all major auto insurance companies offer significant discounts to drivers who designate their vehicle as ‘recreation only’”. As a result, a Nebraska resident who uses the vanpool program could also save money by designating their personal car as recreation only, which means that they use their vehicle for everything but driving to work.
To recruit vanpool program participants, Enterprise staff travel the state pitching companies and their employees on the benefits of vanpooling. Those interested must form groups of 7–15 compatible passengers, who typically live relatively close to each other and work at the same company. They then sign up for the program through the NebraskaTransit.com website. The group also chooses an appropriate vehicle (typically a van or SUV) and gets a monthly price estimate, which includes the discount from NDOT of up to $400. Enterprise issues the group a gas card and invoices the group members each month for their share of the lease, maintenance, and gas (less the NDOT discount), and it invoices NDOT for the amount of the discount. $1000-$1200 per van is a typical monthly cost before the discount, and most of the vans have 15 passengers.
In case of emergencies, the program also includes an on-demand guaranteed ride home (taxi), which participants can use up to twice a year.
Enterprise helps employers recruit riders to the program, and it works with companies to tailor the program to their specific priorities, such as reducing a carbon footprint or freeing up parking spaces. In its marketing materials, Enterprise encourages employers to present the program as a perk to help recruit and retain top talent. Enterprise provides the sponsoring company with “real-time reporting and quarterly impact reports”.
The Go NEWhere Vanpool program is funded from two different sources: urban-to-urban commutes are funded by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) with Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement funds, and other commutes are funded by the Federal Transit Administration with a Section 5311 formula grant for rural areas. The funding for urban-to-urban routes (almost always understood to be routes between Lincoln and Omaha) is limited to about 30 vanpool groups total. As of August 2019, however, only 3 groups had signed up. Every day, about 4,000 vehicles make the 100-mile round-trip commute between Lincoln and Omaha, which suggests that there is an opportunity to expand program participation among people on these routes. The FHWA funding for urban commutes is granted in 3-year installments and may need to be renewed in 2020.
Routes that are not limited exclusively to urban origins and destinations have proved more popular for vanpool participation. As of summer 2019, there were 26 groups registered that either start or end in a non-urban location.
In sum, NDOT received $882,000 to fund the program over three years. When the three year contract with Enterprise is complete, it will reassess whether a long-term program is possible.
When planning for this vanpool program, NDOT gave considerable thought toward how it wanted its eventual contractor to manage the program. In fact, the initial vanpool RFP stipulated a number of program requirements to which any bidder would have to adhere, including the following:
If funding for the vanpoool program is not approved by state or federal legislatures in future years, the NDOT retains the right to cancel the contract after giving 30 days notice;
A vanpool group must consist of at least 6 adults, plus a driver. There must be one designated primary driver and one back-up driver, both of whom must participate in an orientation conducted by the contractor;
If a group is at capacity with a 7-person van, but 3 more people request to join the group, the contractor is required to accomodate this by providing a larger vehicle;
All vehicles must be equiped with wifi, must display the NDOT logo on a decal, and must provide contact information;
Vehicles are not allowed to be older than 5 years or have more than 125,000 miles on them;
The contractor is responsible for providing 24/7 emergency services, including support for flat tires or towing; and
The contractor must manage the program website, which is required to accomodate the submission of all forms and payments electronically.
Although the Go NEWhere program serves Nebraska residents traveling between various types of communities, it is most beneficial for residents commuting to or from rural communities. Often, the lower population density in small and rural communities makes fixed route transit more difficult to operate sustainably, which leaves residents with few transportation options outside a private automobile.
The Go NEWhere program improves mobility for workers either heading to or from these more rural areas. For instance, a low-income urban worker in Omaha without access to personal car would likely have difficulty getting to a factory job in the surrounding area before this program.
However, for the program to be most cost-effective, a large group of commuters must agree to ride together. A person needing to get to a job where they do not have any coworkers with whom they can pool would still find him or herself struggling to find affordable transportation.
In regards to accessibility, NDOT ensured that the program adhered to ADA requirements for people with disabilities by requiring Enterprise to accommodate requests for wheelchair-accessible vehicles. According to the contract, if Enterprise receives a request for a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, they have 30 days to verify the disability and accomodate the request.
The first challenge NDOT encountered regarding the Go NEWhere Vanpool program arose while the agency was writing the Request for Proposal (RFP) for program vendors. The RFP differed greatly from other RFPs the agency had issued previously, and many public officials were unfamiliar with vanpools and their potential benefits. As a result, the drafting and issuing of the RFP required greater coordination and internal review.
Another challenge NDOT faced is that Commute with Enterprise, having bought out their competition, was the only viable option to serve as rental van provider. In fact, they were the only company who responded to the RFP for the program. The cost to the customer would likely be lower if NDOT had the advantage of competitive pricing.
Finally, the greatest hurdle for NDOT and the Go NEWhere Vanpool program pertains to recruiting membership. Initial enrollment was slower than anticipated, but it has been gaining momentum in recent months as awareness of the program increases. Additional marketing could contribute to greater use of the program as well.
On average, the monthly discount of up to $400 per vanpool subsidized by NDOT covers about one-third of the vehicle cost. The remainder of the vehicle cost is split up among the commuting group – up to 15 people. The result is a monthly cost of approximately $40 for a 50-mile round-trip commute that, according to AAA, costs about $800 for a commuter who drives alone.
Beyond cost savings, the potential individual benefits of participation in the Go NEWhere Vanpool program include time at the start and end of the workday to relax and socialize with co-workers. For the corporate business partner, the program may be an attractive employee perk, support teambuilding and reduce the amount of parking they need to provide. For the State of Nebraska and its cities, the program is part of a broader strategy to fight congestion, obviate the need to widen highways and build more parking, and reduce the carbon emissions. Furthermore, it provides a much needed mobility option for residents commuting to or from more rural areas of the state. Going forward, NDOT is optimistic that federal funding for this program will continue to be made available, and that participation will increase as awareness rises.