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By Steve Huffman
Salisbury Post
John Mayes said he rides the buses offered by the Salisbury Transit Division almost everyday, regardless.
But he was as delighted as anyone to learn that Thursday’s ride was free.
“I found out by word of mouth, man,” Mayes said of the free ride. “It’s a good thing.”
Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer have arrived a bit early, but there’s at least one dividend being paid for the heat of the past few days.
On Thursday, the Salisbury Transit Division offered free rides because the ozone level reached code orange. Through Sept. 29, the Transit Division is offering free rides on any day that comes with an orange or red ozone warning.
Rodney Harrison, Transit Division manager, said the idea behind the free bus rides is to encourage people to leave their cars in their garages and take mass transit.
“The whole thing,” Harrison said, “is that we’re hoping to improve the environment. Keep your motor vehicle at home. Take a bus.”
Harrison said Thursday morning that it was too early to tell if the plan was working and ridership was increasing.
He said the system’s drivers said riders were ó quite naturally ó pleased to learn they wouldn’t have to pay.
“This is our first day (where free rides were offered),” Harrison said. “It’ll take awhile to get the word out.”
The N.C. Division of Air Quality labels the first of June through the end of September “ozone season.”
An agreement between Salisbury and the N.C. Department of Transportation provides financial support through the Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Project. The grant will assist in marketing the transit system, enhancing health awareness and improving air quality by encouraging drivers to use public transit.
The grant picks up 80 percent of any money the city might lose through free rides. The city is responsible for the remaining 20 percent.
Harrison said the grant is for three years and may be extended.
“If the city says, ‘People are really taking advantage of this,’ it might continue,” Harrison said. “It’s a good thing. We’re hoping it does well.”
He said it’s impossible to predict how many days will come with a code orange or red ozone reading, but said last summer featured 23 such days.
With the high expected to reach the upper 90s this afternoon, it’s a safe bet that riders may be getting free trips via the Transit Division again today.
To learn if free rides are being offered, customers have several options. They can:
– Call the city’s weather hotline at 704-216-7537 after 7 p.m. for a recorded message concerning the ozone level and the availability of free rides for the coming day.
– Go to the city’s Web site at: www.salisburync.gov/ where the day’s ozone level is posted and information about free transit rides is included.
– Go to Government ACCESS Channel 16 for information.
Typically, the rate for bus riders is $1 for regular fares, with senior citizens and handicapped riders paying 50 cents.
Harrison said about 140,000 riders took the buses last year. He said that number is expected to increase slightly this year.
The buses run every day but Sunday.
Ozone is the main ingredient of urban smog, and even at low levels it can impair breathing.
Harrison said free rides provided by the Transit Division might be good for another reason.
“We’re Salisbury’s quiet secret,” he said of the Transit Division. “We’re trying to market ourselves more.”
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or shuffman@salisburypost.com.

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