For the sixth time this summer, commuters are encouraged to park their cars in exchange for free subway, bus and ferry rides Friday.

The declaration of another Spare the Air Day also means the program has run out of money as quickly as environmental and transportation officials could approve it.

"It is the sixth Spare the Air Day for the season and we are funded for only six," said John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

The $5.6 million added to the program by the commission won't be officially approved until Wednesday, although commissioners gave their staff the authority to advance money for the program if the need arose sooner. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District approved their $800,000 addition this Wednesday for a total of nearly $14 million.

The program reimbursed 26 transit operators in the Bay Area for fares they would have lost on a typical day, although some operators have chafed under increased ridership that has packed BART subway cars and left regular ferry riders at the docks.

If Friday's pollution levels, determined by the amount of ground-level ozone at the worst locations, exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standard for an eight-hour period, the region will have seen more unhealthy days this year than it has since 1999. The total then was nine days above the federal standard. So far this year, the area has exceeded the level seven times, equal to 2001, 2002 and 2003. Last year, the limit was breached only once, and 2004 was the cleanest year on record with no days above the limit.


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Spare the Air Days are triggered by a forecast of hot, stagnant air combined with high pressure. The first day this summer to exceed the ozone standard was June 21, although it was unexpected, so no free transit was offered that day.

"If it continues to be a scorcher like it was in June and July, there will be more Spare the Air Days," said Luna Salaver, spokeswoman for the air district. Unless more money is allocated, however, there won't be any free transit. Bay Area residents will simply be urged to leave their cars at home, avoid using gasoline-powered yard equipment and household chemicals that emit toxic vapors.

"Nobody has talked about getting more money," said John Goodwin, spokesman for the transportation commission. In fact, "the commission has not formally blessed the action taken by its committees" to fund the two free transit days on Monday and Thursday, as well as the final day Friday.

The program started in 2003 as a pilot program by the WHEELS bus service in Tri-Valley Area, and has expanded to include most area transit agencies, from San Jose to Vacaville.

For more information, go to www.sparetheair.org.

Contact Erik Nelson at enelson@angnewspapers.com and read his Capricious Commuter blog at www.ibabuzz.com/transportation.