Clearing the air: That air you're breathing may be slowly killing you

Published: Saturday, Aug. 11 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

The Utah Transit Authority does put a dent in the number of cars on the road. An estimated 6,000 people ride the FrontRunner commuter line a day — that's potentially 6,000 fewer vehicles on the road. UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter said when FrontRunner extends into Utah County by December of this year another 6,800 people are anticipated to ride each day.

On an average weekday basis, 55,000 to 60,000 people ride TRAX, and UTA's van pool program under Rideshare has 400 vans that each ferry anywhere from five to 15 people for an average of 131,782 trips a month, Carpenter said.

"The long-term solution is to get more people out of their cars and get away from the single driver on the road," Carpenter said.

But that "solution" has been part of public discourse for decades, throughout the nation. To really solve the problem means overcoming two key obstacles: cost and inconvenience.

A transit solution

Public transit fares in Utah are among the highest in the country and could be reduced to be more affordable and increase ridership. 

Carpenter said those fees are in the higher bracket because UTA has more people taking longer trips and the service area is 1,600 square miles, driving operational costs higher.

Each year, however, the suggestion is made for UTA to reduce fares or temporarily eliminate them altogether on those "bad air" days.

Such a move would result in a daily revenue loss of between $113,000 and $130,000 — an amount Carpenter said is not sustainable by the agency unless Utah lawmakers make up the rest.

Dr. Brian Moench, head of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said there needs to be a policy shift.

"We must stop spending so much money on road building and be willing to divert some of the Utah Department of Transportation's enormous budget to expand and subsidize a mass transit system that is extensive enough that it provides people with a viable alternative to using their cars. It would take a constitutional amendment to divert some of the gas tax to mass transit."

Access to timely, affordable transit is a pressing problem for many along the spread-out, meandering corridor of the Wasatch Front that is encapsulated by mountains on one side and the Great Salt Lake on the other.

The nearest UTA bus stop is a little more than three miles from Joe Murphy's home in Weber County's Farr West and while he's ridden FrontRunner a few times to get to Salt Lake City, it is not because it is more convenient or less expensive than driving his car.

"Right now, FrontRunner is a novelty to me, because you are not saving any time."

Murphy said if he were to take public transportation to get to work at Hill Air Force Base, it would take him two hours and 20 minutes to go 17 miles.

To go to dinner in Salt Lake City or take in a Utah Jazz game, it costs him $20.40 for him and his wife, Brandy, to ride FrontRunner.

"I can drive it cheaper than that," he said.

About 105 employers provide transit passes to workers, but that is not helpful if the workplace is still miles away. Much like hotels offer shuttles, Murphy wonders if the UTA could offer specialized shuttle services to make up where bus routes end, but Carpenter said Homeland Security prevents a public route from entering the base. Employers and the UTA, clean air advocates insist, could do more to provide comprehensive shuttle services to transport people in larger numbers.

Turning over the fleet

Transportation planners with the Wasatch Front Regional Council and the state Division of Air Quality say even as new cars become cleaner-burning and more fuel-efficient, too many older, exhaust-spewing vehicles remain on the road — chief among them dirty diesel engines.

"They only represent 7 percent of the fleet, but are 40 percent of the nitrous oxide problem," said Kip Billings, traffic engineer with the Wasatch Front Regional Council.

Moench agrees.

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