Driven to ease traffic congestion, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is pushing businesses and government entities alike to expand telecommuting opportunities to get thousands of motorists off the roads each day.

This week, transportation officials held a symposium for dozens of government agencies and businesses in Chanhassen to explain the benefits of telecommuting. Among the first government agencies to sign up was Carver County, where officials have pledged to review their jobs to see how many might qualify for the telecommuting program.

MnDOT, along with the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, has spent the summer touting its eWorkPlace program, which is looking to sign up as many as 2,700 participants in the next year. If that were to happen, MnDOT officials say as many as 1,000 rush-hour trips in and around the Twin Cities would be eliminated if workers were allowed to telecommute at least one day a week.

"It is the future," said Adeel Lari of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, which is helping to start the program with MnDOT. "It is the green thing to do."

Scott County has had a telecommuting policy in place for about 10 years, sometimes with as many as 10 percent of its workers participating.

"The biggest benefit is that it has allowed us to keep people employed with Scott County," said County Administrator Gary Shelton, who has had workers live as far away as Duluth.

Lari said the reduction of 1,000 rush-hour trips in the Twin Cities would have a huge impact, given that a typical rush hour sees about 6,000 vehicles per hour on roads at any one point.

"Everybody drives and there is congestion all over town," he said. "If you reduce congestion, you reduce emissions. Any travel that you can reduce, any emissions you can reduce, that is a benefit."

Among the first private employers to sign up for the eWorkPlace program was Fairview Hospitals, which in the first few months is reporting a 20 to 30 percent increase in productivity among telecommuters, Lari said Wednesday.

Lari estimated that as many as 40 percent of jobs in the economy locally and nationally can be performed from home or satellite offices.

He said less than 10 percent of jobs are being done by telecommuters now.

Lari expects that number to grow because of the growing number of jobs that involve using computers and telephone equipment.

"We have a huge market," Lari said. "It's incredible what can be done with technology."

The eWorkPlace project is part of a $3.2 million study the federal government is funding to look at the benefits and impact of telecommuting.

Lari said he will be looking not only at the traffic and environmental benefits of telecommuting, but also at such things as productivity levels and job satisfaction and quality-of-life issues for telecommuters.

"Nobody is really doing any sort of scientific study of this," Lari said. "That's why we are involved. If it is successful, [the federal government] wants to take it nationally."

MnDOT and the Humphrey Institute are focusing their initial push for the program on the southern metro area as a way to ease congestion on Interstate 35W and Hwy. 77.

But Adeel said he is willing to sign up any employer anywhere in the Twin Cities.

"Dealing with congestion is about options," said Kevin Gutknecht, a MnDOT spokesman. "We know we can't grow our way out of it."

Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280