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WSU looks at Pullman-Spokane van pool

MOSCOW — As cuts at the state level continue to affect operations at Washington State University, school officials have become more creative when it comes to saving money.

One recent cost-cutting measure has resulted in the consolidation of several departments that previously were separated by miles of highway. For example, the College of Pharmacy is moving to Spokane from Pullman so more of WSU’s medical training facilities are located in the same city. Another move will transfer WSU’s Interdisciplinary Design Institute from Spokane to Pullman, eliminating the doctoral degree in design to establish the School for Design from the Departments of Landscape Architecture, Interior Design and Architecture and Construction Management.

Though the changes will create savings for the university, they also pose a problem for WSU employees who may have purchased homes and started families near their places of work. Faculty, staff and students of the departments identified for transfer now face either a 150-mile daily commute, or the prospect of moving to another town.

”There’s lots of transitioning going back and forth,” WSU spokesman Darin Watkins said Monday. ”People who lived and taught in this community are finding themselves being moved as we consolidate a lot of these programs.”

Max Kirk, an associate professor of construction management who also serves as past chair of WSU’s Faculty Senate, took it upon himself to explore the issue this month. He personally knew of seven faculty members who were struggling to adjust to their transfers, and he said he wondered how many other people were having similar problems.

”Curiosity was probably the biggest thing,” Kirk said of his motivation to get involved.

He published an announcement through WSU Today, a newspaper intended for WSU faculty and staff, asking whether anyone would be interested in being part of a van pool. Kirk said the query generated 34 responses in three weeks, with more continuing to come in on a daily basis.

”These are faculty who have been displaced due to budget cuts,” Kirk said. ”If we can provide them a way of traveling back and forth that can save them money, why not?”

The idea seemed like a ”no brainer” to Kirk, who said there are benefits to a van pool aside from savings for riders.

”It gets people off of that road, which is a dangerous road especially in winter,” he said of U.S. Highway 195. ”Plus they can talk to people and meet people or do work on their way down.”

He has spoken with representatives at Spokane Transit Authority, who said a 12-passenger van could be rented daily for an average of $150 per month per passenger.

Anne Irmer, van pool supervisor for the regional public transportation agency, said Spokane Transit already runs several van pools between Spokane and Pullman. One serves employees of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman, for example, while another transports workers to WSU’s Pullman campus for various construction projects.

People who utilize the user-funded van pools tend to grow fond of the program, Irmer said, pointing to the fact that most of the riders are able to sleep or get work done during the commute.

”They love it,” she said. ”They take turns driving, (and) it’s so worth it for them. … There isn’t any other situation out there where they can lease anything and have it be any cheaper.”

At $150 per month, customers would pay $7.50 per work day for their rides between Pullman and Spokane. That comes to approximately 5 cents per mile.

”I just think its a really good deal,” Irmer said.

WSU Parking and Transportation Services director Bridgette Brady said her group will explore the van pool concept, taking into account the needs of faculty, staff and students. She added that, despite Kirk’s conversation with Spokane Transit, a specific mode of transportation has yet to be identified by the university.

”We’re going to explore many options,” Brady said. ”At this point we’re evaluating the demand given the responses. We need to understand demand before we discuss solutions.”

Whatever the resolution, however, Brady said it would have to be user-funded due to tight budgets universitywide.



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