Poor air quality puts physical, economic health at risk, Salt Lake City mayor says

By Morgan Jacobsen

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Jan. 13 2014 11:33 a.m. MST

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Utah Transit Authority propose a new transit program for city residents Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, to address air quality.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Mayor Ralph Becker focused his 2014 State of the City address on what he called “a threat to the state of our city.”

Air quality “directly impacts our physical and economic health,” Becker told those gathered in the Varsity Room on the sixth floor of the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium and Tower. “We’re killing our own future.”

Becker cited Jeff Edwards, director of the Economic Development Corp. of Utah, who said the top reason businesses choose not to come to Utah is because of poor air quality.

Salt Lake City has taken several steps toward improving local air quality, such as converting the city fleet to low- or no-emission vehicles, adopting anti-idling ordinances, installing new rail lines and doubling the amount of bike lanes, the mayor said.

This year, the city plans to phase out two-stroke engines in its maintenance equipment, create a program to replace wood-burning stoves, raise the minimum standard for new and renovated municipal buildings to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification, provide assistance to owners of existing buildings for energy efficiency upgrades, and develop tailpipe emissions standards for city departments, he said.

Becker said Utah's capital city will soon launch the state’s first city-sponsored resident transit pass, giving city residents “unprecedented access to UTA’s rail and bus network at a vastly reduced rate.”

Plans also are underway to make Salt Lake City International Airport the most energy-efficient airport terminal in the country over the next five to 10 years, he said.

“But we can only do so much,” Becker said. “We must look to our state government for change that will truly improve air quality.”

The mayor said state laws don’t allow Utah’s air quality standards to be stricter than federal standards.

“Our situation is unique,” Becker said. “We should be able to tailor whatever approaches work best, regardless of the federal standards. Utah problems need Utah solutions.”

The current rate of sales tax for transit is 0.6 percent. Becker urged the state to raise the cap on sales tax to 1 percent.

The mayor also called for an increase in the gas tax. A higher gas tax, he said, would pay for road construction and maintenance, encourage reduced driving, and improve transit services. Also, the use of lower sulphur gasoline should be required along the Wasatch Front to reduce emissions, Becker said.

According to Becker, Utah’s energy code standards haven’t changed since 2006. Adopting more current building codes across the state would reduce overall energy use and improve air quality, he said.

“To my former colleagues on the hill, I implore you to take serious action on air quality this year,” Becker said. “But if you cannot, for whatever reason, let us do it locally. Let the communities of the Wasatch Front work together to manage our airshed.”

The mayor later introduced a Whittier Elementary School class of fourth-graders that has had to spend several recess periods indoors due to bad air. During one such period last month, the students wrote a song to the tune of “Let it Snow,” which they sang following the Mayor’s remarks.

“No recess will drive us crazy/while the air is gross and hazy/the inversion is quite a drag. Makes us gag. Makes us gag. Makes us gag,” the students sang.

Whittier Elementary teacher Sharon Moore said she has eight students with asthma, three of whom with severe cases.

“I have to check an app on my phone for the particulate matter levels to see if it’s safe” to have recess outside, Moore said. “We were on our third day of indoor recess when they wrote the song.”

“We have the ability to change our ways so we can keep Utah beautiful,” Becker concluded. “I absolutely believe that.”

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

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