Three days of free transit drain funds

For the first time since free transit became part of Spare the Air Days, three consecutive fare-free business days have left organizers scrambling to find ways to pay for such days in the future.

The $7.5 million budget used to pay for free rides on BART, Muni and 23 other Bay Area mass transit agencies was depleted by the designation called Thursday, Friday and Monday. The program runs through Oct. 13.

“We are looking for ways to extend it for a couple of days later this summer,” Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin said. “With so many claims on money, we don’t have pots of it sitting around.”

The $2.5-million-a-day program is largely federally funded, although the Bay Area Air Quality Management District kicked in $870,000 this smog season.

District spokesman Jack Colbourn said organizers are hoping for one or two more days of free transit this summer.

Organizers say this year’s days have been a success because tens of thousands of commuters abandoned their cars and boarded mass public transit. BART reported a 5 percent increase on Friday, with 16,000 additional riders. Other agencies also reported ridership gains.

The past three business days marked the first time free transit was offered in June, as well as the first time it was offered for three consecutive business days, to combat expected high levels of smog.

Historically, August and September are the hottest months, Colbourn said.

“This is unprecedented” to have three working days in a row in June, Muni spokeswoman Maggie Lynch said.

Private industry may be looked upon for new funds, Goodwin said. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission — a regional board that chases state and federal dollars — will discuss the matter in a meeting Wednesday.

A Spare the Air Day can be called without a free transit component. In that case, residents would be encouraged to take transit minus the incentives. The free transit program began in 2004, when there were two days in September of free trips. Last year, only one free day was called in July.

A team of district meteorologists and scientists study weather patterns that result in an air quality index designation. High temperatures, minimal winds and high pressure can result in a high index number, which results in ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog. If the index number reaches 100, a Spare the Air Day can be called, Colbourn said.

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