TRANSPORTATION NEWS

For workers, Metropass is a steal on bus wheels A Metro Transit Metropass program that allows a company's employees to ride the bus for two years at significantly discounted rates -- even free -- is gaining popularity. Currently, 74 companies with 15,000 employees participate.

Workers get Metropasses that allow unlimited regular-rate bus service. Employers can pay Metro Transit as little as $768 a year for their entire workforce to ride free.

Sound too good to be true? Metro Transit said that sacrificing fares in the short term creates long-term relationships and revenue.

How the program works Before joining the Metropass program, businesses must survey employees to see who already rides the bus. That number -- times $64 a month -- determines how much employers pay for Metropasses for their entire workforce.

That means if a company has just one employee riding the bus before joining the program, they could get Metropasses for all employees for $64 a month, or $768 a year.

Metro Transit says many employers divide their cost among all employees who get passes, which usually works out to $30 or less per worker per month. However some companies also pay for the passes themselves, offering them to employees as a benefit.

The cheap-to-free rate sticks for two years, even if more workers ride the bus during that time. When the two years is up, the business again surveys how many workers ride the bus, for a new monthly cost.

The Metropass will work for Light Rail Transit fares, which will be considered regular route service when service begins next April. Metropass riders do have to pay for special express service, such as the State Fair shuttle.

Isn't Metro Transit losing money by giving away free rides? Bob Gibbons, customer service representative for Metro Transit, says yes -- in the short term. However, he said they would gain more riders right away, and more revenue down the road.

According to Gibbons, Metro Transit already receives $8.4 million per year from its 74 participating companies, and when the Metropass contracts are recalculated after two years to reveal new riders, the agency will collect even more revenue.

Metropass's goal Instead of marketing to potential new bus riders individually, the Metropass program scoops up new passengers by the armful, via employers, Gibbons noted.

He said the program's main goal is to increase ridership; even if revenue-neutral, the program gets people and polluting cars off congested roads. He said Metro Transit can't pinpoint how many new riders are captured by the program, but 4.8 million of the 69.6 million Metro Transit rides taken last year used the Metropass.

"They account for a nice and growing portion of our ridership," Gibbons said.

He added that aligning Metro Transit with business interests helps at the Legislature, where mass transit is always battling for funds.

Some businesses make free passes a benefit like health and dental coverage. TCF Bank lists its Metropass involvement on its Web site as an additional benefit for full-time and part-time employees.

Metro Transit's pitch also trumpets tax savings for participating for-profit companies, who can then claim a $100-per-month federal and state tax deduction per employee.

The honor system … almost Since a company's initial cost is based on how many -- or how few -- employees already ride the bus, what's to stop employers from lying about that number to pay less?

Gibbons said Metro Transit expect the companies involved in the program to be honest about the number of riders through their surveys. However, in case they're not, Metro Transit has found ways to verify some counts.

He said many of the 74 current companies signed up for a previous program called Transit Works, in which employers sold bus passes in exchange for slightly discounted passes, providing a baseline.

Gibbons said a third party company also collects and analyzes employee surveys that are filled out after a company signs up, which Metro Transit deems reliable.

For more information about the Metropass program, call 349-7545 or check out www.metrotransit.com. By Robyn Repya

I-35W flyover proposal replaced The I-35W Project Advisory Committee (PAC) voted at its Sept. 4 meeting to replace a new 28th Street flyover exit ramp with a so-called "slip" ramp and modify the northbound entrance from Lake Street to I-35W.

The 28th Street exit conflicted with the proposed northbound entrance ramp from Lake Street. The solution had been to elevate the 28th Street exit, "flying over" the freeway entrance ramp from Lake Street. Some claimed the flyover rose too high above street level. A slip ramp would have a lower elevation and hug the highway more closely.

It would also save money; County Director of Transportation and Public Works Jim Grube said the slip ramp could save the project at least $1 million of the $3.7 million projected flyover cost.

The PAC approved the entire $150 million project last November and forwarded it to the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and other government bodies for a vote expected this fall.

The approved plan would also move 35th and 36th street ramps to 38th Street and add a southbound I-35W ramp to Lake Street via Stevens Avenue, among other changes.

Both the flyover and slip ramps would eliminate 16 housing units: eight single-family homes and two fourplexes. However, the PAC began discussing eliminating the High Occupancy Vehicle lane on the Lake Street entrance ramp, letting the slip ramp move further west. Grube said that could potentially save a few of the 16 houses.

The PAC will discuss that option at their next meeting, Tuesday, Sept. 30 from 10 a.m. to noon at Lutheran Social Cervices, 2414 Park Ave. S. -- Robyn Repya