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don’t blow it out the tailpipe just yet

By enelson
Monday, July 31st, 2006 at 11:53 pm in Environment, ferries, Funding, Transit vs. driving.

car exhaust bnw.jpgIt’s official: Spare the Fare Days were a colossal waste of money.

That’s what it would seem from some of the recent reviews of the $13.6 million program to provide the Bay Area with free transit on smoggy weather days.

Photo from

Judging from one account, buying up old cars would be a far more cost-effective way to fight smog. More effective, that is, than jamming  the Sausalito ferry with more free passengers than the Carpathia or allowing hostile youth to run amok on BART without jumping the gates or plunking down $1.40 for a farecard.

Yes, it’s true that we don’t, as yet, have any empirical evidence to show a significant drop in smog on Spare the Air Days. Not enough to justify the $2+ million per day that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District shelled out to repay transit operators for what they would have made those three days in June and three more in July.

The air district, which orchestrated the program while the MTC came up with most of the money, offers an interesting defense:

“We never disclosed to our board or to anyone else that this was about emissions reduction. It was behavioral change,’’ said Jack Colbourn, senior policy advisor for the air district.

Colbourn acknowledged that the current estimate of air pollutant reduction on free transit is about 1.25 tons a day, he said the full effect of the program won’t be known until the end of the season, Oct. 13.

“I do not think that by looking at those six days you could quantify the program at all,’’ he said, arguing that the key results the district will be looking for is whether people make a long-term, fare-paying commitment to parking their cars at home.

“We do know that 81 percent of the Bay Area knows what a Spare the Air Day is. They may not know to take transit, but they know it’s a call to action.’’

I agree that the free fares helped attune people to the idea of Spare the Air Days, although I think a lot of people still think it automatically means free fares and are disappointed when they don’t find the blue stickers on the BART fare gates.

The critics have a lot of ammunition here. The pre-1985 killer exhaust vehicle buyback program, the very same one that the air district borrowed from to finance the second three days of free fares, is a very cost-effective way to reduce emissions.

But while reiterating that Spare the Air was not simply a daily emission-reducing program, Colbourn also said that program had done all the good it could do for the year. There simply weren’t more duly registered, operable old cars that their owners wanted to give up.

The question is, will taxpayers, environmentalists and other critics be willing to wait until October before deciding to trade in free fares for some other smog program?

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4 Responses to “don’t blow it out the tailpipe just yet”

  1. Pablo Says:

    I think the larger hope from the Spare the Air free transit days is that more people ride public transit in the future, not just when it is free. But at the end of the day, until people either give up their cars and ride transit or accept to be taxed more, there will not be sufficient ridership/system-generated revenue to fund a more cost-effective, efficient and convenient public transportation system.

  2. SH Says:

    “Colbourn also said that program had done all the good it could do for the year” That’s just stupid. Instead of dumping $2 Million into free transit – BAAQMD could have increased the vehicle buy back amount (currently $600) to say $1000. That would equate to 13,600 smog producing automobiles forever taken off the roads. That would have a far more positive impact on the Bay Area air quality then a few days of free transit.

  3. enelson Says:

    CC here. Sorry to have to excise your hate mail vs. Colbourn, SH. I’m frankly too lazy to verify your rather nasty characterization, and I haven’t been here long enough to have that kind of institutional memory.

    Also, remember that it’s “an” idiot, not “a” idiot.

  4. Bryce Says:

    Gee, as $1000 for an old clunker, it will *really* be worth importing them just to get the credit…

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