GRAND RAPIDS — For some area residents, a better way to get to work may be through a new program called BEST, short for Better Employment Safety-net Transportation.
The Workforce Development Board and the Interurban Transit Partnership (ITP) have teamed to provide vanpool transportation to and from work 24/7 to residents of the downtown area and to serve employers in the suburban industrial zones near the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.
The downtown residential area and the southern industrial zones were selected for the pilot program simply because of their high population densities, said Mary Anne Young, ITP’s business transportation services coordinator.
Census data revealed high concentrations of residents in the area roughly bounded by Knapp Street on the north; Burton Street on the south; Fuller Street on the east and Alpine Avenue to Clyde Park Street on the west.
ITP then looked at work trends and found high concentrations of employers in the industrial area generally bounded by 28th Street on the north; 76th and 52nd streets on the south; Patterson Avenue on the east; and Clyde Park Avenue on the west.
An estimated 50,000 people work within a 5-mile radius of the airport.
The pilot involves two 15-passenger vans that will pick people up at their homes and deliver them to their employer’s door.
The program was developed to help area residents with unforeseen work transportation issues and to bridge a gap in transportation services, particularly for those in new or low-paying jobs. It’s “the first step in offering employer-based transportation to everyone in the Grand Rapids area,” said Win Irwin, chairman of the Workforce Development Board.
The program can be used for employees who need a ride to work on either a regular or temporary basis. Employers can pre-purchase X number of rides and use vanpool vouchers on an emergency basis for employees who might need a ride to work only on occasion.
“Sometimes this program is going to be used to help people who can’t get to work any other way,” Young said. “This is one of the more expensive ways to provide transportation through ITP, but it also is a way to get people from their door to their employer.
“If employers take advantage of all the different funding opportunities, it will cost about $5.50 per person per one-way ride.”
Employers can offer BEST rides as an employee benefit or institute a cost-share program to help offset expenses for employees. Anyone who is in job training through the state of Michigan is eligible for the service as well, Young noted.
Employers can purchase vanpool vouchers through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Commuter Choice program and receive a deduction from federal business income taxes for the value of vouchers.
The Commuter Choice program allows employers to deduct up to $65 per person per month for vanpool services.
Employers may permit employees to set aside some of their income, before taxes, to pay for their commutes and set up an account similar to a 401k or Section 125 flex spending account.
Employees don’t have to pay federal income tax or payroll taxes on the amount they elect to set aside for transportation expenses, and employers don’t have to pay U.S. payroll taxes or other payroll related costs since the amount is treated as a benefit rather than as taxable income.
The one-year pilot program is being funded through a $205,110 grant from the Michigan Career Development Office and in-kind contributions from ITP.
The only requirement is that participants live and work in the pilot target areas.
Employers must register for the BEST program for their employees to be eligible. Three area employers have registered thus far, Young said.
Employers interested in registering for the program can contact Young at 774-1188.