The Maine Department of Transportation and Maine Turnpike Authority announced Thursday an expansion of the state’s ride-sharing program aimed at reducing the number of cars on the road and promoting greener travel choices. The program is intended to help people in Maine find travel options for any trip, instead of just daily commutes. Above, traffic moves Thursday along Capitol Street in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Rob Sobczak believes so much in group commuting that he has his own 15-passenger van he has used for his daily, 120-mile round trip from South Portland to the University of Maine at Augusta.

While not all Maine drivers are likely to make a similar investment, Maine transportation officials are working to promote ride-sharing and extend the idea a little further.

On Thursday, the Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority announced they are renewing efforts through GO MAINE , the statewide ride-sharing program, to promote greener travel choices by expanding the program’s scope beyond daily commuting to every vehicle trip taken in Maine.

And in doing so, they are working to achieve the goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled, outlined in Maine Won’t Wait, the state’s four-year plan for climate action.

“This program is pretty visionary in the sense that it’s focusing on all people,” Emily Decker, the program manager for GO MAINE , said Thursday.

Historically, travel demand programs like ride-share programs have focused solely on work commutes, Decker said. The traditional route is working with employers on carpooling programs and helping commuters find carpool matches among co-workers or others traveling to and from the same areas.

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“A lot of people think that carpooling is you commuting with your spouse,” she said, which is something she actually does.

Sobczak started his commuting life about three decades ago, with the Go Augusta program that promoted vanpooling. At about $150 a month, vanpooling provided a more affordable option that solo driving, and he signed on. That program eventually evolved into an earlier version of the GO MAINE program, but when that ended in about 2012, the commuters were left to fend for themselves.

The telecommunications engineer ran some numbers and decided he could put his own 15-passenger van, which was a family vehicle, into vanpooling service for about the same cost, while covering the cost of maintenance, fuel, tires and replacement.

Until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sobczak ran the van with an average of 12 riders and a couple of backup drivers in the group. Since the pandemic, the van has been mostly parked in his driveway as the demand has fallen off. But now that state workers are starting to return to the office, he thinks he will get the van — a replacement of the original — back onto the road a little later this year.

Sobczak’s experience mirrors what transportation officials have seen in Maine’s traffic trends. During the COVID-19 pandemic, vehicle miles traveled in the state bottomed out in April 2020 — when businesses, agencies and schools closed — at less than 800 million. Just two years later, the vehicle miles traveled were at about 1.1 billion in March, slightly less than what they were during the same month in 2019.

State Department of Transportation statistics show nearly 10,00o state residents have signed up for the ride-sharing program, noting that organizations across the state have made GO MAINE a part of their culture.

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With a rewards program for those who incorporate green options — walking, biking, telecommuting, carpooling, vanpooling or taking public transportation — into their travel and log them through the program, the state DOT is working to hit some goals this year. They include more than doubling the number of new members in the program, and reducing both the number of vehicle miles driven and trips taken in the state.

Most program participants live and work in Greater Portland and elsewhere in southern Maine, but Decker said her agency is working to expand that in other areas of the state.

GO MAINE now has 14 members working in Kennebec County who are recording trips. Half are commuting or ride-sharing, and the other half are telecommuting or biking.

Since March, GO MAINE has added four members who commute to Kennebec County from other parts of the state. The others telecommute.

The other benefit of the ride-sharing program is saving Maine residents money on gasoline and diesel, but so far only four members have joined since March, when transportation fuel prices spiked. Program data shows that before gas prices increased, only five ride-share trips were being recorded.

As part of its expansion, GO MAINE is now offering an interactive mobile app with a trip planner that can provide a list of green travel options, targeted both at daily commuters and anyone traveling in the state.

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“All some people want to do is to Strava (an online tracking service for tracking exercise) and sync their bike trips, so they can see what their environmental impact numbers are,” Decker said.

But for others, the app contains information on how to get around for people who are traveling to Maine by train or bus.

GO MAINE is also sponsoring two How Green Can You Go competitions a year, doubling the chance for participants to win prizes and recognition. One is scheduled for May, another for October.

Details are available on the program’s website — gomaine.org.

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