When temperatures rise and the haze becomes thick, local commuters are encouraged to spare the air — a smog-reducing initiative aimed at persuading people to ditch their cars and take public transit.
However, the message promoting public transit doesn’t seem to extend to the agency running the program.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which regulates pollution in the region, has an incentive program that pays executive staffers anywhere from $500 to $675 a month for car use. Not including maintenance costs, the district will spend $31,500 this year on the stipend, which covers the vehicle use of six district employees. Six other executives drive vehicles already purchased by the district.
Lisa Fasano, spokeswoman for the district, said all executive vehicles are clean-air cars, and the monthly stipend can only go toward the purchase of similar personal vehicles.
She said the district covers nine counties and its employees must go to meetings and conferences in areas not accessible by public transit. She also said district vehicles are emblazoned with promotional slogans about clean-energy technology and the importance of carpooling.
But local transit and environmental officials aren’t buying that reasoning.
“Any kind of incentive policy for car ownership or use is incredibly outdated for the air district to have, even if it’s an electric vehicle,” said Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, a regional transit advocacy organization.
Although district employees might be driving low-emission cars, they will be contributing to particulate matter kicked up by road dust, along with adding to congestion on the region’s already-strained highways, Cohen said.
Howard Strassner, a spokesman for the San Francisco Sierra Club, said there are plenty of transit options for employees of the air district, which is based five blocks from City Hall.
“No agency responsible for air quality or the reduction of global warming should provide any incentive to drive,” Strassner said. “They should use public transit when they need to get around, or, at worst, Zipcar.”
Spokesman John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional body similar to the air district, said his agency does not offer vehicle perks to its employees. The MTC does have eight cars on hand for district staff to use. By contrast, the air district has 140 cars, although 90 percent of the fleet is made up of clean-energy vehicles.
Tom Bates, Berkeley mayor and chair of the air district’s board of directors, called the car perk reasonable.
“Some employees travel from areas where public transportation is limited,” Bates said. “Most of these cars have the least-possible air emissions.”
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District offers employees vehicle incentives.
$500: Monthly car stipend available for deputy and division directors
$675: Monthly car stipend available for executive director and legal officer
12: Staffers who qualify for monthly stipend
$31,500: Annual expenditures related to compensation program
$72M: Annual budget