The sun was peeking above the horizon one day last week when Victoria Valdez and Vivian Alfonso boarded Alfonso’s 2013 Toyota Corolla in South Miami-Dade. They were starting their weekday commute to their jobs at PortMiami, carpooling to avoid driving two cars.
The two also receive $25 each every month as participants in a program that rewards carpoolers if their commute takes them through the area where workers are rebuilding a massive interchange linking two busy expressways: State Road 826 (the Palmetto) and State Road 836 (the Dolphin).
In effect since March 2012, the program has grown from 33 registered carpoolers to 736.
Under the program, funded by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), carpoolers who qualify are paid $25, $50 or $75 per month, depending on how many people are in each vehicle. Two people in a vehicle get $25 each. Three get $50 each. Four or more receive $75 each.
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The key requirement to qualify: Carpoolers must describe how their commute takes them through the 836-826 construction zone, where workers are redoing the interchange near Miami International Airport at a cost of $560 million. (Construction is scheduled to end in 2015.)
Software at the outfit that oversees the program, South Florida Commuter Services, then verifies that the commuter’s route from home to work passes through the construction zone.
The most direct and fastest route for Alfonso and Valdez is through the construction zone, then 836 eastbound to Biscayne Boulevard and the port.
Someone who lives in Key Biscayne and works at the port, for example, would not qualify because there would be no need to drive through the construction zone.
“Anybody can go through that zone, but if it’s not the most direct way, then we have to get an explanation from the commuter why they are going a specific way,” said Jim Udvardy, project director at South Florida Commuter Services.
The program was started as a way to encourage carpooling to reduce the number of vehicles that pass through the congested construction zone.
“About a year ago, we developed and set this plan to promote the use of carpooling on the 826-836 because of the construction and the new roadways being developed, so we can reduce the traffic,” said Udvardy.
Valdez and Alfonso said they started carpooling long before the program started. Initially, they said, carpooling was a convenient way to save money because of the economic crisis.
“We started carpooling a long time ago,” said Alfonso.
The women said carpooling is better than driving alone because they talk to each other.
“Carpooling makes the ride more enjoyable,” said Valdez as Alfonse pulled out of the driveway Wednesday morning around 6:50 a.m.
Eventually, the women made their way to Florida’s Turnpike and headed north. At 836, they turned east. Then at Biscayne Boulevard they turned south. By 7:30 a.m. they had reached their destination.
Carpooling is not a daily requirement under the program.
Rules require that people carpool at least 16 working days out of the month, said Udvardy. And carpoolers who are part of the same household are not eligible.
“Everybody has to go online and fill out a calendar,” he said. “So your calendar would have to be the same as your fellow carpoolers.”
Udvardy said he expected the number of program carpoolers to increase.
“We are launching a campaign in the month of May that is coordinated with Clean Air Month at MIA which is basically in the impact zone,” he said. “So we’re looking for considerable participation from the airport. They’ve agreed to go ahead and promote the program.”
At least 35,000 people work at MIA. Udvardy would not say what is the maximum number of carpoolers the program can subsidize. But he noted it could cover hundreds more. So far the program has spent $103,000, he said.
“Any cars we can take off the road I certainly think it’s beneficial not only to other commuters, but to the state,” said Udvardy. Surveys show the program is successful because for some, carpooling has become a habit, he said.
“Survey results actually showed that prior to the incentive, 55 percent of those people in the program drove alone each day,” said Udvardy. “ Out of that, 72 percent said they would actually continue carpooling once the incentive is eliminated.”
To get more information about the program, contact South Florida Commuter Services at www.1800234ride.com, or call 1-800-234-RIDE