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  • Sun July 27 2008
  • Posted Jul 27, 2008
By S.P. DINNEN sdinnen@dmreg.com Brad Gerndt used to spend $275 a month driving from his home in Nevada to his job at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage in West Des Moines. And that was before gasoline topped the $4 per gallon mark. Nowadays, Gerndt leaves his car at home and instead drives himself and about a dozen other people from Story County to jobs in West Des Moines. Collectively this one load of commuters figures they save around $10,000 a year on fuel using one of 90 vehicles rented to riders by DART, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority. Car pooling has exploded as employers encourage workers to look for ways to save energy as they themselves dial down the thermostat. In an extreme case, Principal Financial Group Inc. even built a miniature power plant to help its sprawling downtown Des Moines campus cope with the nation's energy woes. Des Moines area employers have responded in different ways to higher gas prices and an uncertain energy future. One of their bigger efforts appears to be increased support of DART, which offers a program to participating employers that allows workers to ride for free by merely showing their staff ID. Michelle Orfield-Koranda, a spokeswoman for DART, said average weekday passengers on express and commuter routes increased more than 25 percent between May 2007 and May 2008. Specialty routes, which include on-call and shuttle services, have risen 69 percent. Ditto for van usage. "We are at capacity, and we have a waiting list," Orfield-Koranda said of vans that bring people from 19 separate counties to Des Moines area employers every workday. Gerndt's van started in 2005. Because he's the driver, he rides for free, while other passengers pay $97 a month. "It's nice to save on the gas," said Elaine Barajas, a Wells Fargo worker from Ames. Gerndt likes to push other workplace energy savings as well and has helped stage a Styrofoam recycling event. The company also has held bike-to-work weeks, and one employee regularly pedals in 20 or so miles one-way from Ankeny to the Wells Fargo office building south of Jordan Creek Town Center. There also is increased biking at the Nationwide Insurance headquarters along Locust Street in downtown Des Moines — by the security officers there. Spokesman Mike Palmer said bike and foot patrols reduce vehicle usage. On peak energy consumption days (when the temperature tops 90 degrees) the window shades get lowered in the buildings that house Nationwide and sister company Allied Insurance. The insurer also dims the lights to conserve energy. Principal uses outside air to heat and cool many of its facilities. Spokeswoman Rhonda Clark-Leyda said the effort not only lowers costs but saves the insurance and financial services company enough energy annually to heat and cool 330 homes. Like many other employers, Principal has switched many light bulbs from incandescent to fluorescent, reducing energy consumption. At American Equity Investment Life Holding Co., chairman David Noble looks out and sees a parking lot filled with vans, pickup trucks and other fuel-hungry vehicles. He knows he can't make anyone trade in a Hummer for a Prius, but the company is doing its bit to ease the gas pump blues by tacking $50 extra onto each employee's paycheck and labeling it a transportation allowance. "Companies like ourselves need to look out for our people," Noble said. American Equity's 300 employees come to its West Des Moines headquarters from Newton and beyond, and Noble said he's working on a few other ideas to take some of the financial sting from their daily commute.

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