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Salt Lake City seeks to improve air quality by limiting vehicle idling

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 12 2011 5:11 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Van Turner rarely idles his vehicle longer than a minute.

The Salt Lake City councilman says that's about how long it takes the engine in his 1988 Jeep to sputter and die.

Though it's not necessarily by choice, Turner already is complying with a proposed city ordinance that would limit vehicle idling in Utah's capital city to less than two minutes.

The purpose of the ordinance is to improve air quality in the Salt Lake Valley. City officials say more than 50 percent of air pollution in the valley comes from vehicle exhaust.

"It isn't healthy for the community," Mayor Ralph Becker said during a City Council work session Tuesday.

If the City Council approves the ordinance as currently written, motorists idling their vehicles anywhere in the city for more than two minutes could be fined between $50 and $210, depending on the number of offenses and how quickly fines are paid.

Some council members say they would prefer that limit to be set at three minutes, which appears to be the standard among states, counties and cities that have passed anti-idling laws. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the issue Oct. 25.

Enforcement of the ordinance would follow a public awareness campaign and a grace period to make sure Salt Lake City residents and visitors understand the new law and the need for it, said Bianca Shreeve, assistant to the mayor's chief of staff.

According to the Salt Lake City Attorney's Office, the law also would apply to private property, meaning residents could be fined for idling their vehicles in their driveways for more than two or three minutes.

The likelihood of that happening, though, is very slim. Parking enforcement officers will be the ones writing the tickets, and there simply aren't enough of them to worry about motorists warming up their cars for longer than allowed by city ordinance.

Shreeve said enforcement likely will be complaint based. The hope is that the law will help educate people about the importance of turning off vehicles when idling isn't necessary.

Becker says that's already happening. People both for and against the proposed ordinance are talking about the idling policy, and it's raising awareness about idle-free practices, he said.

"The discussion alone over the past month or two has been a real positive," the mayor said.

Those who have been most vocal in their opposition to the proposed change have been the fast-food restaurant and banking industries, where drive-thru service is a big part of serving customers.

City officials are working with the Utah Restaurant Association and the Utah Bankers Associations to address those concerns.

"We agree with the spirit of the ordinance and the goal of the ordinance," Howard Headlee, president of the Utah Bankers Association, said during a recent public hearing. "However, we have serious concerns about some of the technical details associated with it."

A majority of council members, however, say they don't believe the idling restrictions will harm restaurants or other drive-thru businesses. They say the ordinance is designed to encourage responsible behavior.

"Its not about businesses," Councilman Luke Garrott said. "It's about drivers."

Councilman Stan Penfold said, in most cases, there's no reason drivers can't turn off their vehicles if they're stuck in a fast-food or drive-thru banking line for more than a few minutes.

"You can turn your car on again if it gets too cold or hot," Penfold said. "For me, it's not been a problem."

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