Free evening rides cut from Spare the Air 

For some Bay Area commuters, Spare the Air rides won’t be the cash-saving free lunch they’ve come to expect, as train and ferry operators plan to cut out free evening service this year to avoid overcrowding.

Spare the Air season kicks off on Friday and will run through Oct. 12 this year, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District announced Wednesday. The district, in conjunction with 29 area transit agencies, will spend $8.5 million to fund four free transit days in 2007-08, up from three free days in 2006-07.

By offering free rides, air quality and transit experts hope to coax riders out of their cars and into buses, trains and ferries on the Bay Area’s smoggiest days, district spokeswoman Karen Schkolnick said.

Nearly 10 percent of Bay Area drivers took free transit on Spare the Air days in 2006, up from 7 percent in 2005, Schkolnick said.

"This is a major accomplishment, given that not driving for just one day eliminates almost one pound of smog-forming pollution and 30 pounds of greenhouse gases," Metropolitan Transportation Commission Executive Director Steve Heminger said.

The district spent about $7 million to fund 2006’s three transit days, offering free rides in both the morning and the evening. But high temperatures, which lead to increased smog, forced the district to exhaust its free-ride funds before the end of June.

The state then kicked in an additional $5.3 million to add another three free-ride days for a total of six in 2006, Schkolnick said. Additional funding from the state isn’t expected again this year, she said.

This Spare the Air season, BART, Caltrain, Altamont Commute Express and ferry operators will offer free service until 1 p.m. only, in an effort to avoid overcrowding and increased vandalism experienced by some agencies in 2006, MTC spokesman John Goodwin said.

Bay Area bus operators will offer free rides all day long, Schkolnick said.

The change in train and ferry service was made, in part, to squeeze the most free ride days out of a limited amount of money, but also because some agencies experienced abnormally long delays and overcrowding, Goodwin said.

Spare the Air

What triggers free transit rides

» Ozone levels high enough to exceed federal health standards

» Spare the Air advisory is issued the day before free-ride day

Spare the Air in 2006

» Twelve advisories issued

» Six full free-ride days

» Cost: About $13 million

Benefits in 2006

» Free rides led to an additional 1.3 million transit riders

» 32.2 tons in vehicle emissions prevented

— Metropolitan Transportation Commission

ecarpenter@examiner.com


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