Stamford Firms Join City in Gridlock Battle

STAMFORD, home to 13 Fortune-500 companies, is sandwiched much of every working day between bumper-to-bumper traffic along the Merritt Parkway to the north and I-95 to the south. Located less than an hour north of New York by train, this suburb began to work on its growing traffic congestion problem in 1988 with the help of a two-year $450,000 federal grant.

Stamford's experience demonstrates both the promise and the pitfalls of the new trend toward joint employer-city action to ease traffic congestion.

The Mayor's Transportation Management Roundtable, which received the funding, managed to involve 50 or about one-third of the city's eligible larger employers.

A survey of commuting habits showed a high 78 percent of employees drove alone to and from work. The companies agreed to try to reduce that figure to 52 percent by the mid-'90s.

A number of companies, including Champion International Corporation, which donated office space for Roundtable meetings, subsidized employee transit. Metropolitan Life offered employees $60 a month toward either transit or parking expenses. GTE has long offered carless employees a guaranteed ride home in an emergency. Several firms, including the Xerox Corporation, offered some employees more-flexible work hours.

Many Stamford drivers say the area's traffic flow is improving. ``We have no hard evidence to back up that impression, but peak [travel] hours are spreading,'' says Susan Bates, associate director of Connecticut's Southwestern Regional Planning Association.

Dan Fleishman, manager of transit policy analysis for Multisystems Inc., which evaluated the project, says its success lies in the concrete corporate steps taken, a growing awareness of the need to ease the problem, and the production of materials that can help in the future, particularly in the event of a gasoline crisis.

``It was disappointing that more companies did not take more action,'' Mr. Fleishman admits. He blames both poor timing - the choice of a moment when some executives thought traffic problems had eased - and lack of stronger corporate or city leadership.

Broad employee willingness to change commuting habits is also vital. ``If you depend on one person or one company, there's very little impact - it's got to be a partnership,'' says Jim Ferro, a Xerox representative.

``To have many people doing a little is the real way to make this kind of program work,'' agrees Roundtable program director Deborah Heinrich.

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