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Commuters share rides to save gas money

It's still dark. Just before 6 AM, Kevin Eichenauer arrives at a park and drive lot near the Highway 16 in Newark. He turns on the van to get it warm. Then he gets started on the windows. Eichenauer is the driver for a vanpool subsidized by the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission. Each day he and about 10 passengers commute 80 miles to and from their jobs in Columbus.

"Some read, some sleep or get caught up on work--just whatever they want to do," he said.

As the van driver, Eichenauer is responsible for gas, maintenance, collecting money and getting his passengers to work on time. For his effort, Eichenauer rides for free while the passengers share the cost of gas and van rental. MORPC sponsors the rideshare program and arranges vans for groups from specific workplaces and towns in Central Ohio. Eichenauer's vanpool, the first for Ohio State University employees, began a couple of weeks ago. The group gets a startup subsidy from MORPC to give them time to recruit passengers. Eichenauer estimates the program will cost about $160 per person each month. So for some, the vanpool cuts the cost of the commute in half.

"I drive a Camry and with gas at 3.45 it would cost me about 300 a month in gas--plus the wear and tear on your vehicle plus your parking pas if you give up your parking pass," he said.

And parking is one incentive. The van has a reserved parking spot in a garage near the Ohio State University Hospital. Eichenauer, a social worker at the hospital says OSU has been trying to get a group together since last fall.

"The cost of gas is just going up through the roof and it's like something's gotta be done," he said.

And so a little after 6 AM the group gets ready for the 45 minute drive.

Eichenauer turns on the radio to check the traffic as the last few passengers arrive. All the passengers have Eichenauer's cell phone number and keep in contact if they have to drive separately or are running a little late.

Lynn Robinson is the program director for MORPC. She says since gasoline prices have risen, more new applicants and people already within the program have boosted demands for carpooling.

"On the vans people are calling 'Do you have any empty seats from the Mt. Vernon area, from the Lancaster area?' So I think everyone is feeling the pinch," she said. She says program participants call to get more people in their carpools to reduce their share of gasoline costs.

But for some passengers carpooling is more of a mental relief. Pamela Thomas has been commuting from her home in Gambier to her job at OSU for three and a half years. Her typical commute from the town northeast of Columbus she says was at least an hour and a half. Now she drives half an hour to get to Newark and joins the vanpool for the rest of the trip.

"And with this I get to drive a half an hour and then relax or conversate or stare blankly out the window, read, listen to a book on tape whatever I want to do," she said.

And she admits the savings on gas is an added perk.

"It saves in money and sanity," she said.

After a relatively mild morning commute, Eichenauer approaches campus. He drops off some of his passengers before heading to work himself at about 7:30. The group will meet up at 4:30 for the drive home. He jokes it would be nice to get a GPS system to help them find their way around wrecks during rush hour. But for now he and his passengers put their heads together to find the best route.