'Spare the Air' program abandonedBy Paul Rogers
The free rides are over.
The Bay Area program that offered a free pass to everyone who rode buses, ferries and trains during smoggy summer days has been canceled, the result of dwindling federal funds, its high cost, and record gas prices that are boosting transit ridership anyway.
The free rides, which began in 2004, were part of "Spare the Air," a public outreach effort run by two government agencies: the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Both agencies have decided to sponsor one final free transit day on June 19, whether it is smoggy or not, as a way to encourage new riders.
But for the rest of 2008, and afterward, passengers will pay - as usual - to ride. A big part of the reason for ending the free-fare program?
"It was costly. There is just no two ways about it," said MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler.
Last summer, for example, ridership on BART, CalTrain, VTA and 26 other Bay Area transit agencies increased by 665,000 people - or 22 percent - from normal levels during the two August days that rides were free.
The goal was to stop smog levels from spiking above federal health standards on those particularly hot, muggy days. On neither day did the Bay Area exceed those standards.
But it cost $4.6 million for the two agencies to reimburse the transit operators for tickets and fares, surveys and marketing materials. Surveys later showed that only 2.9 percent of the riders on those two days said they rode free because of the program and would have otherwise driven a private vehicle instead.
The increased ridership removed 13.45 tons of smog from the air - but at a cost per ton of $342,000. By comparison, other programs run by the air district, such as buying and crushing old smog-belching cars and replacing the engines of aging diesel school buses, typically reduce smog at a fraction of that cost: $500 to $30,000 per ton. And that smog is gone permanently, not just for two days.
During 2006, the two agencies spent $13.3 million for six days of free rides. During those days there were widespread stories of teenagers disrupting BART trains, homeless people riding ferries and others taking advantage of the free rides while not removing a car from the road.
The air district and MTC attempted to show that some of the new riders became regular riders. But board members of the agencies weren't convinced.
"How lasting was it? People would get a free ride, but would that transfer into changing driving habits? The results were inconclusive," said Sue Lempert, a former San Mateo mayor and member of the MTC board.
"There were also a lot of people who took advantage of this who were not polite, they were noisy, and they inconvenienced other commuters." Lempert noted that $4-a-gallon gas prices are boosting transit ridership without incentives.
Meanwhile, the program's federal funding is running out, and neither agency's board is interested in taking money from other programs, from building carpool lanes to inspecting factories for pollution violations. In May, they voted to pull the plug.
The "Spare the Air" program, however, will continue. As it has since 1991, the campaign will feature public service announcements on radio, newspapers and TV encouraging residents to carpool, reduce the use of lighter fluids and lawn mowers, and take other actions on smoggy days. But the campaign will be re-branded "Spare the Air Every Day" and be expanded to urge the public to reduce energy use every day to help cut global warming emissions and smog.
"We're trying to make this a much broader campaign than just the focus on free transit on high ozone days," said Lisa Fasano, a spokeswoman for the air district.
Added Lempert: "They are going to put their money into an all-out education program. I think they'll get more dividends out of it. My concern was whether we were getting the best bang for the buck."
Copyright ©2008 San Jose Mercury News. Published 06/03/2008.