AUGUSTA — Rob Sobczak believes in group travel so much that he has his own 15-passenger van that he used for his daily 120-mile round trip from South Portland to the University of Maine in Augusta.
While not every driver in Maine is likely to make a similar investment, Maine transportation officials are working to promote carpooling and take the idea one step further.
On Thursday, the Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority announced they are renewing their efforts through GO MAINE, the statewide ridesharing program, to promote greener travel choices by expanding the reach of the program beyond daily trips to every vehicle trip made in Maine.
And in doing so, they strive to achieve the goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled, outlined in Maine won’t waitthe state’s four-year climate action plan.
“This program is quite visionary in the sense that it focuses on everyone,” Emily Decker, GO MAINE program manager, said Thursday.
Historically, travel demand programs like ride-sharing programs have focused only on work trips, Decker said. The traditional route is to work with employers on carpooling programs and help commuters find carpool matches between colleagues or others traveling to and from the same areas.
“A lot of people think carpooling is about commuting with your spouse,” she said, which she actually does.
Sobczak began his life as a commuter about three decades ago, with the Go Augusta program that promoted carpooling. At around $150 a month, carpooling offered a more affordable option than driving solo, and he committed. This program eventually evolved into an earlier version of the GO MAINE program, but when that ended around 2012, commuters were left on their own.
The telecommunications engineer crunched some numbers and decided he could put his own 15-passenger van, which was a family vehicle, into ride-sharing service for about the same cost, while still covering maintenance costs , fuel, tires and replacement.
Until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sobczak ran the van with an average of 12 riders and a few backup drivers in the group. Since the pandemic, the van has mostly been parked in her driveway as demand has dwindled. But now that state workers are starting to return to the office, he thinks he’ll get the van – a replacement for the original – back on the road sometime later this year.
Sobczak’s experience mirrors what transportation officials have seen in traffic patterns in Maine. During the COVID-19 pandemic, vehicle miles traveled in the state bottomed out in April 2020 — when businesses, agencies and schools closed — at less than 800 million. Just two years later, vehicle miles traveled were around 1.1 billion in March, slightly less than they were in the same month in 2019.
State Department of Transportation statistics show nearly 10,000 state residents have signed up for the rideshare program, noting that organizations across the state have made GO MAINE a part of their culture.
With a rewards program for those who incorporate green options — walk, bike, telecommute, rideshare, carpool, or public transit — into their trip and connect them through the program, the state’s DOT is working to reach some goals this year. They include more than doubling the number of new members in the program and reducing both vehicle miles driven and in-state trips taken.
Most program participants live and work in Greater Portland and elsewhere in southern Maine, but Decker said his agency is working to expand that to other areas of the state.
GO MAINE now has 14 members working in Kennebec County who log trips. Half commute or carpool, and the other half telecommute or cycle.
Since March, GO MAINE has added four members who travel to Kennebec County from other parts of the state. The others telecommute.
The other benefit of the rideshare program is saving Maine residents money on gas and diesel, but so far only four members have joined since March, when transportation fuel prices soared. Data from the program shows that before the increase in gas prices, only five carpool rides were recorded.
As part of its expansion, GO MAINE now offers an interactive mobile app with a trip planner that can provide a list of eco-friendly travel options, aimed at both daily commuters and anyone traveling within the state.
“All some people want to do is go to Strava (an online tracking service to track exercise) and sync their bike rides, so they can see what their environmental impact numbers are” , Decker said.
But for others, the app has information on how to get around for people traveling to Maine by train or bus.
GO MAINE also sponsors two How Green Can You Go contests per year, doubling participants’ chances of winning prizes and recognition. One is scheduled for May, the other for October.
Details are available on the program website — gomaine.org.
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