e36362pIR325EE14.lg

SMC — It takes more than two months of work for the average family in Santa Monica to cover their driving expenses for the year, according to the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG).

At a bus stop in front of Santa Monica College, student participants from CALPIRG’s local chapter on Tuesday released a nationwide survey that showed the average Santa Monica household dedicates 17 percent of their yearly expenses to transportation, which in 2008 was more than $8,000. More money was spent on transportation than food, clothing, entertainment or health care.

CALPIRG has dubbed the date when a city’s median-income household has earned enough to pay off their driving expenses for the year “Transportation Freedom Day.” This is an annual celebration that began last year. Erin Steva, CALPIRG’s transportation advocate, said the freedom days were launched as the economy weakened, wanting to highlight the burden transportation costs posed to families.

The students want to draw attention to the need for more affordable, public transit options.

Santa Monica falls behind such public transit-rich areas as the Lower East Side in Manhattan and Center City West in Philadelphia, which celebrated their “Transportation Freedom Day” in February. However, the city is ahead of Los Angeles, which will celebrate its freedom day on March 16. More suburban areas such as Avondale in Arizona must wait until April 18 to cover their yearly transportation costs.

CALPIRG student Jung Gatoona emphasized the relevance of the study now at “a time when Americans are struggling to make ends meet.”

“Shortchanging public transportation is a classic case of being penny-wise and pound foolish,” said Gatoona. “Now more than ever, public officials must make trains and buses a top priority.”

CALPIRG student Margaret Howe urged people to contact their elected officials to put pressure on them to not raid transportation funds to help cover budget deficits. CALPIRG students said there are hundreds of good public transportation projects which remain stalled for lack of funding.

Gatoona mentioned extending the Expo Line, the Purple Line, and creating the California high-speed rail line. The transportation upgrades funded by Measure R are supposed to take place within the next 30 years, but Gatoona said that they’re looking to make that 10 years, and that there will need to be more money allotted for it.

Measure R is a half-cent sales tax which was approved in 2008 and is supposed to commit $40 billion to traffic relief over the next 30 years. The lengthy timeline is often criticized, which is why CALPIRG is promoting a speedier process. On the flip side, there is the argument that there is just no money for that right now.

The extra money spent, however, would come back through other means, they said. The Center for Neighborhood Technology, Smart Growth America and U.S. PIRG found that transit projects funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act have created nearly twice as many jobs per dollar invested as highway projects.

Additionally, the Environment America Research and Policy Center found that in 2008, public transportation use reduced emissions of carbon dioxide.

Even though few people showed for this mid-day celebration, many students waiting for the bus were taking advantage of the very programs which were being discussed. As Cameron Henton, SMC’s Associated Students president, spoke of the college’s “Any Line, Any Time” program which allows SMC students to ride Big Blue buses for free at any time, students swarmed the bus stop to do just that.

Suzanne Wood, an SMC student, said that she rides the bus, “because it’s free and gas is expensive.” However she said the No. 7, which is the bus she was waiting for, is not always so ideal.

“It can be insane at times,” she said. She has seen several times students waiting for the bus and being turned down once the bus arrives because there was not enough room. “You have to stand and it’s a pain.”

She added that the No. 11 isn’t as bad, which stops on Ocean Park Boulevard, a couple of blocks down, but might not be as crowded because not as many people are going that way.

CALPIRG would like to pressure elected officials to dedicate more money for public transit so students like Wood do not have to be late for school or work because buses are overcrowded.

news@smdp.com