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In our opinion: Variable tolls would help clean the air

Published: Saturday, Oct. 5 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

State officials have a plan they say will reduce harmful fine particulates along the Wasatch Front. But they are missing an opportunity to push congestion pricing, which would be more effective.

Rick Bowmer, AP

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To many Utahns, air quality seems much like the weather. People complain, but nobody ever seems to do anything about it.

That sentiment is not entirely accurate, however. Federal standards, handed down through the EPA, have forced the state through the years to develop plans to reduce air pollution. These have been successful, for the most part. Now, however, the EPA has increased its standards and the Wasatch Front has been out of compliance when it comes to the level of fine particulates in the air since 2009.

The non-compliance won’t shock anyone who lived through the temperature inversions last year, when any outdoor activity was considered ill advised.

The state Department of Environmental Quality has written a new plan it hopes will change this. Officials acknowledge the task is a challenge. They have scheduled three public hearings in October and are asking for public input.

Much of the plan is realistic, in that it relies on new federal auto standards to reduce vehicle emissions and would impose emissions controls on large manufacturers that pollute. But the state is missing out on a huge opportunity by not recommending a broad expansion of congestion pricing mechanisms.

As state officials noted in a paper outlining the plan, more than half the state’s air pollution can be attributed to motorized vehicles. The plan relies on local jurisdictions to enact procedures, and on the cooperation of private business to stagger work schedules and promote telecommuting, particularly during days when temperature inversions increase the risk of bad air.

Congestion pricing would accomplish this without the need to negotiate anyone’s cooperation. Put simply, it would place a price on driving Wasatch Front highways as a way to regulate demand. At the current price of zero (for all but the car-pool lanes), demand often exceeds the supply of available roadway, leading to traffic jams. Idling vehicles increase the amount of fine particulates in the air.

Under a congestion-pricing scheme, motorists would be charged variable amounts for using Interstates and other expressways — hardly anything during times of light traffic, and much more during times of high demand.

Several cities worldwide have implemented such a scheme, including London, Stockholm, Milan and Singapore. In Stockholm, for instance, cars are electronically monitored and motorists are billed at the end of the month. Traffic there has been reduced and the use of public transportation has increased. People tend to postpone discretionary driving in order to avoid unnecessary costs.

Utahns who use high-occupancy lanes are familiar with congestion pricing, although the lanes are free for any cars bearing two or more people. The scheme would be much more effective is the entire roadway were subject to it.

Last winter provided a dramatic example of how growth has increased congestion along the Wasatch Front. A prolonged inversion led to several days in which the area was deemed to have the worst air in the nation. This exacerbated health problems and led to miserable conditions for many.

The unique geography of northern Utah valleys lends itself to stifling temperature inversions. This dramatic condition can be countered only by dramatic and bold countermeasures.

State lawmakers should give serious discussion to expanded congestion pricing. Companies would voluntarily reschedule deliveries and people would change their habits. The money collected could be used to build new roads or transit.

Public hearings will be held Oct. 8 at 10 a.m. at the Weber-Morgan Health Department Auditorium, Oct. 9 at 9 a.m. in the Utah County Chambers, and Oct. 15 at 10 a.m. in the DEQ Board Room No. 1015, located at 195 N. 1950 West in Salt Lake City. Comments also can be email to Mark Berger at mberger@utah.gov.

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