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September 29, 2005

Rising gas prices having little effect at Pitt

When gasoline prices skyrocketed over the summer months, many people began to change their travel and commuting habits. But apparently those people don’t work at Pitt.

“Generally, the fuel price increases have not had a material effect on the operations and services provided by Parking, Transportation and Services,” said Joe Phillips, Pitt assistant vice chancellor for business.

Perhaps the wide range of options Pitt commuters have in place make changing travel habits less likely.

Recently, Pitt was designated “one of the best workplaces for commuters” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The award recognizes employers that offer environmentally friendly commuter benefits. Pitt was applauded for, among other things, its shuttle service for faculty, staff and students to adjacent neighborhoods and fare-free access to the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s mass transportation system.

Pitt offers an array of benefits that help commuters, including carpool parking discounts, free ride-matching for carpools and vanpools, the guaranteed ride home program in cases of emergency, six free parking passes per year for each registered carpooler and free bicycle registration and bike parking.

In most services that Pitt offers, no significant changes have occurred as the result of an increase in fuel costs, Phillips said.

“Our carpool numbers have remained static over the past year,” he said. “In August, 454 people were participating in carpools,” nearly the same as last August.

“We have had only three individuals who indicated that they discontinued their parking permits because gas prices made their commute too expensive,” Phillips said. “Also, requests for alternative commute information have not been noticeably different than past years.”

Other travel-related services reflect a similar steadiness, he said, including the number of rented bike lockers (24 last year and 25 so far this year) and the number of airline travel requests for University business trips.

“The Office of Travel Management has seen no drop in the number of travel requests,” Phillips said. “Our average price per airline ticket has increased less than $5, and there has been no across-the-board airline increase related to fuel price increases.”

The per mileage rate for using a vehicle for University business was increased in August from 40.5 cents to 48.5 cents per mile to cover the increase in gasoline, Phillips acknowledged. “However, there has been an increase in rental activity, rather than a decrease,” he pointed out. “In July 2004, 33 vehicles were rented for 453 days and traveled 25,905 miles. In July 2005, 33 vehicles were rented for 506 days and traveled 38,632, an increase of 12,727 miles.”

Regarding the on-campus moving, receiving and mail delivery services, Phillips said, “We continue to monitor the fuel cost concerns in this area but have yet to see any material impact. Our trips throughout campus are generally short in terms of mileage and the majority of our vehicles use diesel fuel, with greater fuel efficiency than petrol gas vehicles. No price increases [for our customers] are currently planned due to fuel cost concerns.”

Neither are prices expected to increase for services that Pitt contracts for, such as the campus shuttle service with Lenzner Tour and Travel, the mass transit agreement with the Port Authority and the vanpool service with CommuteInfo.

“There are no increases [for Pitt] expected for football game shuttle service, or for any of the other shuttles operating on campus,” Phillips said. Lenzner and the University contract for service based on an hourly rate which includes all expenses, he said.

“Our third-party contractor agreements are set for their respective terms and we are not affected for the short run,” Phillips said.

Port Authority spokesperson Bob Grove confirmed that there are no plans at this point to renegotiate Pitt’s contract based on fuel prices.

The University is in the second year of a three-year deal with the Port Authority, where Pitt is paying $3.219 million for the year that began Aug. 1. From Aug. 1, 2006 to July 31, 2007, Pitt will pay $3.38 million.

The transit company tracks the number of Pitt riders as a factor in contract negotiations, Grove said. “The philosophy with Pitt has been to get the per-ride [fee] more in line with our average fares, so we’ve been upping the fees incrementally over the last few years. That philosophy won’t change.”

Pitt ridership in June and July 2005 actually declined slightly over the same months in 2004, but August numbers were up considerably over last year.

“We did see a pretty big increase in Pitt riders between August 2004 (391,754) and August 2005 (431,027), which could be due to people looking for travel alternatives,” Grove said.

Overall, the transit authority saw an increase in ridership of 4.2 percent comparing August 2004 with August 2005, he added. “We’re especially interested in September and October, because those are our biggest ridership months.”

For its vanpool service, Pitt contracts with CommuteInfo, a program of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.

According to Lisa Kay Schweyer, program developer, CommuteInfo maintains a regional database to provide a customized on-line ride-matching service. Her organization leases the vans to Pitt and other customers.

Currently, there are 13 vanpools that come to Oakland each weekday servicing 142 Pitt employees, she said.

Riders pay a monthly fee, and split the costs of gas and tolls. The fee covers insurance and 24-hour emergency service.

“Obviously, it depends on how far you’re traveling,” Schweyer said. “The cost averages, including gas, between $90 and $120 per month per rider. But, you’re sharing the cost of gas, some [auto] insurance plans give you a break for vanpooling and the University will let you pay with pre-tax dollars.”

Requests throughout the region for CommuteInfo services, which in addition to vanpools and carpools include information and referrals, telecommuting resources, transit/biking/walking resources, park and ride lot maps and transportation resource fair lists, have gone up about 70 percent in the last few weeks, Schweyer said.

However, the number of vans used by Pitt employees has been stable in the recent past, she said. “But we’d be happy to accommodate more riders by adding more vans. You can very easily register on line.” For more information, visit or call 1-888/819-6110.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 3

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