By Bob Balgemann

The Buckhead Area Transportation Management Association (BATMA) is getting help in its effort to move traffic off local roads.

What executive director Denise Starling termed “the perfect storm’’ of economic factors, fueled by rising gasoline prices, has prompted more businesses to help employees find a different way to get to work.

Some companies, such as Wellpoint, are offering subsidies to workers who use MARTA or a van pool.

Starling said 52 percent of Wellpoint’s more than 800 employees use a method other than driving the family car to get to work. “They have won awards for their efforts.”

She said proximity to a MARTA station was one reason the company moved to Buckhead. That is a factor being considered by more and more businesses looking to relocate.

Some companies are allowing employees to work from home one or more days a week, said Amy Sturgill, the assistant director of BATMA. The list includes Kaiser Permanente, Melissa Libby P.R., Ritz-Carlton and RSUI.

“We provide free consulting services to help them set up their programs,” Sturgill said.

Interest in BATMA-sponsored programs is “going through the roof,” Starling said. “We promote everything and anything to get you out of your car.”

Those programs in 2007 cut travel on local roads by 22 million miles and kept 38 tons of harmful emissions out of the atmosphere, she said. MARTA ridership accounted for most of those reductions.

Van pools in particular are increasing rapidly. “We hoped to start eight this year,” Starling said. “We will start 20.”

That will double the number of van pools serving commuters from such suburbs as Buford, Snellville, Cartersville, Woodstock, McDonough, Fayetteville, Villa Rica and Conyers. The program started three or four years ago.

A van pool usually involves 10 to 12 people with a similar work schedule. One of the participants serves as the volunteer driver. A private vendor supplies the vans. BATMA coordinates the pools and provides a $135,000 subsidy to lower the monthly fare, Starling said.

That money comes from BATMA’s $669,862 annual budget, supported by the Buckhead Community Improvement District, membership dues and highway grants targeting air quality problems.

BATMA also provides a 5 percent discount on MARTA passes sold in buildings around Buckhead. Some employers enhance the discount by letting their workers buy the passes with pre-tax dollars.

Sales of the passes increased 8 percent in May and June and are up 17 percent overall in 2008, BATMA said.

BATMA’s Buc System, founded with 10 buses in November 2003 to provide free transportation around Buckhead, fell on hard times when a three-year grant expired in 2007, and Starling said the number of buses was reduced to six. But the economic downturn has prompted a comeback, she said, and ridership rose 20 percent in May and June.

“We plan on letting it ride for the time being,” she said of the program. Advertising will be allowed on all of the buses soon, and new, smaller buses will be deployed after January.

“All of the programs we offer are exceeding projections by 150 percent or more,” Starling said.

The economic “perfect storm,” which includes housing foreclosures and increasing food costs, has been “nice for us,” she said, “because there is a motivator, rather than us going out and trying to find people” to participate in programs.

“More employers are looking for creative ways to get their employees to work,” Sturgill said.