Carpooling in Austin? There's an App -- and a Toll Rebate -- for That

Carpooling has been declining since the 1970s, but Austin's pilot could give it a new look.

Are cash and a smartphone app enough to get Austinites to carpool?

That’s what an alphabet soup of agencies — the Federal Highway Administration, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority — are hoping to find out by the end of this year, when the recently launched app Carma finishes its pilot in Austin.

Carpoolers who use the free app on the 183-A tollway or the U.S. 290 East tollway, known as the Manor Expressway, get half or all of their toll reimbursed, depending on how many people are in the car. The point for now isn’t to ease traffic congestion, of which there is little on those highways, but to see who uses the app and how frequently.

“We’re interested in seeing if this is enough of a critical mass of attraction for people to change their habits,” said Greg Griffin, a researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute who is studying Carma.

Depending on how it goes, the agencies could eventually offer reimbursements on other Austin-area toll roads, including the MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) express lanes currently under construction.

About 10 percent of Austin’s population carpools, Griffin said, nearly the same as the national average. Carpooling, first promoted by the federal government during World War II as a resource-saving measure, has been stagnant or declining since the 1970s, Griffin said.

Households now have more vehicles that they are spending relatively less money fueling, Griffin said. And as populations spread into the suburbs, the number of commuter routes increased, making it more difficult to find overlaps, Griffin said.

That’s where Carma comes in, matching up users and allowing them to message one another before sharing a ride. Users create a profile, input their commute and schedule, and register their TxTag and license plate information.

Once in the car together, each user records the trip on the app. Riders pay 20 cents per mile —17 cents for the driver and the rest for Carma — through the app. (Austin officials said that payment is much lower than ride-sharing apps such as Lyft, Uber and Sidecar that butted heads last year with the city, which said they were akin to a for-profit taxi service and needed to go through the permitting process.)

Drivers using Carma get a 50 percent toll reimbursement through their TxTag account if they have one passenger and a 100 percent rebate if they have two or more passengers.

There are six toll plazas on 183-A charging 38 cents to $1.40 for TxTag users, while U.S. 290 East has six plazas charging between 53 cents and $1.06.

The Federal Highway Administration awarded a grant of $764,008, while the mobility authority and TxDOT are each pitching in $45,000, and San Jose-based Carma is contributing $105,000, said mobility authority spokesman Rick L’Amie. The money funded the integration of the app and TxTag, and it will pay for the toll reimbursements and promoting Carma, said Paul Steinberg, Carma’s vice president of business development.

So far, 582 Austin-area residents have downloaded Carma, Steinberg said. Most are probably in North Austin or Williamson County, where Carma has concentrated marketing efforts, Steinberg said.

At the end of this year, the federal grant will run out — and so will the reimbursements, Steinberg said, unless transportation agencies decide to expand the program.

For the freeway that perhaps gives drivers the most heartburn, Interstate 35, Steinberg said Carma might offer carpooling incentives such as raffles for concert tickets or free rides in its Tesla.

“It’s not about bribing you to carpool, but we will have fun, cool things you can win that are Austin-specific,” Steinberg said.

Cities across the United States have long attempted to use special lanes, including carpool lanes meant specifically for vehicles with multiple passengers, to unclog freeways. The trend now is creating express lanes that drivers must pay a toll to use, Steinberg said.

Carma could be the first system to verify carpoolers — which otherwise might take a police officer on the side of the road or cameras — and then provide them with toll reimbursements, Griffin said.

“This is the first time in the world, that we know of, where these two technologies are linked together,” Griffin said.

The two-pronged approach could make an impact on traffic congestion, a brief on the study says, though Griffin noted it won’t be a panacea. Public transit and encouraging biking and walking are other fixes that would ease congestion, Griffin said.

©2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas