Today marks the start of a greatly expanded 4-month Bay Area program to combat summer's worst potential smog by offering free bus, rail and ferry rides.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District/Metropolitan Transportation Commission's "Spare the Air" program is funded for three full days, six one-way commutes and has brought in 24 bus, rail and ferry providers. Last year the program included 21 agencies and was only good for two free mornings, of which one was used.

"We spare the air, we save lives, we help people breathe healthier," said Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who serves on both the Air Quality Management District board and MTC.

"In California, we have a car culture, and that's very hard to reverse," KTVU-Channel 2 traffic reporter Sal Castaneda said.

Castaneda said he often encourages transit ridership during his reports and was invited Wednesday to Treasure Island by the air and transportation agencies to help promote the program. The program not only seeks to combat smog, he said, but also "it's to get people to try (transit) once, so you'll see how easy it really is."

Thanks in large part to $6.7million in federal grant money obtained by the MTC, the program can reimburse up to $6.3million in lost fares to the various transit agencies. The program's total cost, including state and local funding, is $7.5 million. If all three days are used up before the program's ending date of Oct. 13, the free-transit program will end early.


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One thing the agencies won't have to pay for is the rights to the U2 song "Beautiful Day," which were donated so the song could be played in advertisements to whip up enthusiasm for the program.

In 2005, July 26 was declared a Spare the Air day, and transit ridership rose by

21,000, or 6.7 percent. Ozone did not exceed federal standards that day at any of the air district's 20 or so monitoring stations. Two such days in 2004 attracted similar ridership.

The program kicks in after the district's meteorologist determines that atmospheric and temperature conditions are ripe for the ground-ozone levels to exceed 92 parts per billion during the following day, explained district spokeswoman Luna Salaver. Because smog tends to drift into inland valleys, those high levels would be likely to show up in the far reaches of the Tri-Valley area, as well as in Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties.

"We consider Spare the Air a regional program, because what folks on the west side do affects people on the east side," Salaver said.

It wasn't always regional, however. Haggerty noted that Tri-Valley area's WHEELS bus system offered the free rides four years ago, in part to prove to the rest of the region that the idea could work. Since then, the Bay Area's program has become a model for other metropolitan areas around the nation, which have attempted similar programs with spotty success, Haggerty said.

The program offers free rides on just about every major transit provider in the Bay Area, including BART, Caltrain, ACE, AC Transit, SamTrans and Muni and a slew of smaller bus and ferry operators. This year's new additions are Fairfield/Suisun Transit, Rio Vista Delta Breeze and Vacaville City Coach bus services.

While reducing automotive traffic is the primary goal of Spare the Air days, the air district also encourages area residents to cut back on other polluting activities, such as using gasoline-powered lawn mowers or trimmers or spraying solvents that evaporate into the air or even using aerosol beauty products. On such days, people sensitive to pollution are also advised to stay indoors, especially in the afternoon when ground ozone is at its peak.

More information about the program is available at http://www.sparetheair.org.

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