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In our opinion: Tackling bad air

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Bad winter air has been a part of life in the northern Utah valleys for a long time. For instance, in the winter of 1876-77, 23 days of dense fog were recorded. The significance of that, of course, is that not a single automobile was responsible for the bad air.

Instead, a lot of people were burning wood and coal to stay warm back then, belching smoke into a weather dome held in place by a stubborn high pressure. Emissions from fireplaces and stoves got so bad that on Feb. 3, 1931, this newspaper said, "Even London hardly boasts of thicker ground clouds than nature has laid over Salt Lake and much of Utah for the past three days."

The point of this is to say that temperature inversions and polluted air are not new along the Wasatch Front. They are the result of weather systems that put warm air aloft, trapping cold, stagnant air below. Interest groups and others have put pressure on state lawmakers and the governor in recent weeks as a consequence of a particularly nasty recent stretch of smoggy days. Given all that has been done over the years to improve this situation, from construction of a efficient and clean mass transit system to improvements in automobile emissions, it would be wrong for the state's political leaders to overreact. It would be equally wrong, however, to ignore some potential ways to improve the situation.

Business leaders say bad air is damaging to commerce and recruitment. When the government identifies your metropolitan area as having the worst air in the nation, as it recently did with the Salt Lake area, that is not good publicity. Nor are health official overstating things when they talk about the harm fine particulates can cause to people who are frail or otherwise vulnerable.

Yet, despite the occasional bad air days, the Wasatch Front does not suffer from horrible traffic congestion. A recent study by the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute ranked the area 84th in the nation in terms of congestion. However, experts say automobile emissions remain a significant source of pollution during inversions. The state should address this in ways that are effective, but not overly disruptive.

Congestion pricing — a type of toll that varies depending on road conditions — is an effective, market-based solution. Utah already uses this concept on I-15's HOV lanes. The lanes are open to any car containing two or more people, as well as those drivers who have signed up to pay a toll. The price of that toll rises or falls along with traffic levels, providing incentives for people to drive during off-peak times.

The concept should be expanded. Air quality conditions should be added as a factor affecting the toll. In addition, the tolls themselves should be set much higher during peak times. Lawmakers ought to consider expanding the number of toll lanes to make the advantages of paying more obvious.

Some have suggested opening UTA buses, TRAX and FrontRunner trains to free ridership on inversion days. This is a good suggestion, but it comes with a cost. Lawmakers ought to consider raising gas taxes — something they haven't done since 1998. Granted, this has become an increasingly inefficient tax as more people seek alternative-fuel vehicles and as fuel efficiency rises. But some of the money raised from an increase could help fund those occasional free-ride transit days, as well as some needed road improvements.

Finally, there are things the private sector could do, as well. Catalytic converters are efficient devices for reducing emissions. But studies have shown they emit considerable pollution during the first five minutes of operation, before they have warmed up. Some manufacturers have included electronically heated converters in their high-end cars, which greatly reduce this warm-up period. Making these more available would improve the air. Also, UTA should work with more employers to provide discounted transit service.

Policy makers need to be realistic. No solution is likely to completely erase bad air during prolonged inversions. Every genuine improvement that could be found, however, should be pursued.

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