Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III yesterday announced the area’s first financial-incentive program for employees to work at home to ease the Washington area’s traffic congestion.
“Today’s technological advancements provide unparalleled opportunities to improve the way we live and work,” Mr. Gilmore said.
Northern Virginia employers can qualify for up to $35,000 in grants to set up telecommuting programs. The state will reimburse employers for part of their costs, such as leasing computers, fax machines and modems, or for leasing space at any of eight Northern Virginia telework centers.
The program is limited to Virginia employers and residents and will be administered by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
Mr. Gilmore said a primary goal is to relieve the area’s traffic congestion that ranks among the nation’s worst.
“Potentially thousands of commuters in Northern Virginia may take advantage of teleworking, which will help alleviate congestion in the region,” said Virginia Transportation Secretary Shirley Ybarra.
Surveys done by the Virginia Department of Transportation showed that one out of 10 daily commuters could telecommute at least one day per week. Nationally, telecommuting and the increased productivity that comes from it could save $441 billion per year, Virginia officials said.
“I have more time to myself,” said Dave Schranck, a technical-support analyst for Siemens Corp., who lives in Falls Church and telecommutes regularly. “I stay in bed longer, I cut down on razor blades and I don’t get stuck in traffic for an hour-and-a-half a day.”
He believes telecommuting has increased his productivity, although he understands why other telecommuters might complain about the loneliness.
Mr. Gilmore described Virginia’s telecommuting incentives as a pilot program. State officials plan to spend $3 million in the next two years on the program, then evaluate it to determine whether to continue it. Employers can receive up to $3,500 per telecommuter for a maximum of 10 employees. Part of the subsidy can be used for training.
This week, Virginia transportation officials plan to mail more than 4,000 letters to employers inviting them to participate. Eligible employers must have at least 20 employees.
“This is not the whole solution, but it’s another step in a solution,” Mr. Gilmore said.
About 12 percent of the Washington area’s work force, or 250,000 people, telecommute at least one day per week, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ most recent figures from 1998. That is a 65 percent increase in two years. About 7,000 of them are federal employees.
“I think it’s very progressive,” said Nicholas Ramfos, who manages telecommuting programs for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, about the new Virginia program. “It really shows the commitment on behalf of Northern Virginia that they’re looking at various options to reduce the traffic congestion.”
He said Washington-area residents who drive to work travel an average of 32 miles per day round-trip.
The amount of extra time spent in traffic because of traffic congestion rose from 45 hours in 1998 to 46 hours in 1999, according to Tim Lomax, a researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute, which ranks metropolitan areas’ traffic problems.
The national average is 36 hours.
Virginia transportation officials studied similar programs in Arizona, California, Maryland and Oregon while developing their own.
Maryland provides free consulting services for employers to set up or expand telecommuting. About 25 employers in the Washington and Baltimore areas have participated since the Maryland Department of Transportation started offering the consulting service two years ago. However, Maryland does not provide direct subsidies to employers like the Virginia program.
The District provides no financial incentives for telecommuting. The closest equivalent is run by Commuter Connections, a regional transportation-management agency at 777 N. Capitol St. NE.
The agency matches commuters for ride-sharing, reimburses occasional taxi trips for public transit users and provides information to employers on setting up telecommuting programs.
Siemens Corp., a global electronics company with a local headquarters in Reston, has saved $7 million in the last two years in office-space costs. About 50 of its 250 local employees telecommute.
Siemens also sells some of the technology used for telecommuting, such as equipment that allows employees to have their office telephone calls and faxes transferred to home phones and fax machines.