Spare the Air rolls out free transit one last time

The free transit rides enjoyed by Bay Area commuters on Spare the Air Days have reached the end of the line.

Today’s free transit day is the first not directly linked to air pollution, but announced in advance by the Spare the Air campaign to allow more time for trip planning.

It likely will be the last free rides of any kind due to dwindling funds and a new strategy for the Spare the Air program, said Lisa Fasano, communications director for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

The district and Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which jointly manage the program, must reimburse transit operators $1.8 million in lost fares for every day of free rides on buses, BART, trains and ferries. The money came from a one-time grant from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program.

“There was a set-aside amount of funds for us to offer this as a program,” Fasano said. “That funding source is going away.”

But while nobody — including local commuters — gets a free ride forever, the Spare the Air program isn’t going anywhere. In fact, unhealthy air days are expected to double this summer due to a more stringent federal ozone standard put in place May 27. Those tightened protections may result in up to 15 Spare the Air Days, Fasano said.

Accordingly, the campaign will now focus on reducing air pollution every day through a variety of methods — taking transit, using nontoxic cleaners and refraining from using lighter fluid. Fasano said air district officials are working with businesses, including Elephant Pharmacy, to develop incentives such as free workshops and coupons.

Some commuters expressed disappointment that the free rides, which began in 2004, were coming to an end. Sarah Mello, 31, who rides BART from her home in Richmond to her data-entry job in San Francisco, said the free rides boosted her spirits on smoggy days.

“I pay like $200 a month to ride BART every day and it was nice to have a break once in a while,” she said.

San Mateo County Supervisor Jerry Hill, who is the chairman of the air district, called the free rides “a good program, but terribly expensive.” He said officials had never been able to quantify behavioral changes as a result of the free rides that would justify the expense. Transit ridership is up across the Bay Area, he said, but that likely is due to the price of gas.

tbarak@sfexaminer.com

Who’s offering free rides?

Free transit on tap for today’s Spare the Air day.

Free all day

» All Bay Area bus and light-rail systems, including Muni and SamTrans

Free until noon

» BART, ferries and trains, including Caltrain

Source: MTC

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