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GOVERNOR AND GEEK INVITE UTAHNS ALONG FOR THE RIDE

SHARE GOVERNOR AND GEEK INVITE UTAHNS ALONG FOR THE RIDE

When the governor meets the geek, it's to join forces and create a dual endorsement for travel in numbers.

It's a potent combination, these two famous faces: Mike Leavitt on the right, UTA-Martin on the left. That's Martin, not Martian, though he could be taken for an alien and sometimes is.The governor is tall and the geek is short, but Mike and Martin see eye-to-eye in their campaign, which encourages Utahns to share their cars with other commuters to help ease ever-growing congestion on I-15, the main traffic corridor along the Wasatch Front.

The Utah Transit Authority over the past three years has spent almost a half-million dollars promoting car pools - an investment its officials say will pay off in the long run because it's cheaper than building more roads.

Martin and his companion voyagers - Anne, Juanita and Jeffrey - are a staple now on local television, appearing over the past year in eight commercials that feature the carpooling quartet chatting on their way to work.

Anne is a young and apparently single mother. Juanita has kids in college. Jeffrey is getting married next year. It's a mainstream group rounded out by the eccentric Martin, played by Salt Lake actor Alan Gregory, who twitches spastically to the rhythm of his Walkman, prattles on about "preconceptual theory in the bimodal realm" and sings ride-share songs to his annoyed compatriots.

It seems an unlikely incentive.

"We've gotten a lot of calls from people saying, `Why in the world would I want to carpool if it's going to be like that?' " said Bill Barnes, UTA's chief spokesman.

The question misses the point, said Ron Eager, a senior account manager for FJCandN, the advertising firm formerly known as Fotheringham and Associaties, which produced the advertisements.

"Our research showed the other three people in the campaign are very representative of the kind of people who carpool," said Eager. "A concept like carpooling is fairly dreary, and what Martin does is effectively bring humor to this dreary setting."

"With the hundreds of thousands of messages people are bombarded with, statistics show only about 3 percent are remembered."

Martin, UTA hopes, is unforgettable.

And the ads are working, according to Barnes, who cites UTA figures that reflect a growing participation in carpools.

In 1993, the agency, whose chief function is to provide bus service along the Wasatch Front but lately has been putting more time and money into promoting carpools, made 833 "matches" through its ride-share hotlines. Though people aren't exactly flocking into ride-sharing droves, this year UTA is on track to more than double 1993's participation and is having similar success in creating van pools subsidized by UTA.

The agency rents out 27 vans under a lease program and is looking for more customers. Through a no-interest purchase plan it also subsidizes 48 other van pools. Almost 300 applications have been mailed this year to people who asked about joining the interest-free program, which picks up much of a van-buyer's car payment if the owner operates a pool with at least seven people.

Heber City resident Steve Olsen, a commuter who runs a UTA-sponsored van pool 45 miles to Salt Lake every day, calls it a "very good deal."

He says, too, that although he might not want to be stranded on a desert island with the six passengers who ride in his van, the benefits of traveling with others aren't just financial.

"I'd rather ride with people because one, they keep you awake; two, it's safer if there's a breakdown or something; and three, the conversation isn't terrible. Sometimes it's like what they represent on the commercials but sometimes it's very interesting, informative and enjoyable, too."

UTA's subsidy has kept the payments on his 1990 Dodge Caravan well under $300, said Olsen, and the $60 he collects every month from each of his six passengers almost allows him to break even on his transportation costs.

Olsen has two people on a waiting list to join the pool, and in the four years he's spearheaded it only one member has quit, "only because he retired," said Olsen, who manages the LDS Church's downtown museum and drops his passengers off along a direct route into the heart of Salt Lake City.

He expects to buy a new van next year, under the same UTA program.

J. Michael Davis, a major at the Army National Guard's headquarters in Draper, likewise spouts the pluses of van-pooling.

"It provides you with a little diversion from having to drive . . . it gives you a chance to read or sleep," said Davis, who shares a Guard-owned van with nine others and travels about 40 miles one-way from Springville in southern Utah County.

Davis said it costs him from $35 to $40 a month to participate in the program, which is one of several co-sponsored by UTA and a number of large employers along the Wasatch Front.

"Obviously, economy is a factor in it," said Davis. "But I don't mind riding with a bunch of people."