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My view: Improving air quality through extending bus transit

By Ralph Becker, Johnny Anderson and Joel Briscoe

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, March 9 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

UTA MAX buses pickup and drop off passengers along 3500 south 3600 west Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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We know our winter inversion air quality problems are caused primarily through vehicular emissions, and improving air quality along the Wasatch Front must include reducing those emissions. For years, we have provided incentives and encouraged voluntary steps for drivers to reduce single-occupant trips, take transit and other modes of transportation and improve fuels and vehicles.

A key step in giving more people real options for reducing vehicular trips is to make transit more convenient. Utah and Utah Transit Authority are renowned across the country for the remarkable urban rail development that has been built along the Wasatch Front in the last 15 years. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, the rail construction was well underway and bonds were committed. The local sales tax, a primary source of revenue for transit, took an especially hard hit, and Utah Transit Authority cut back on its bus service in the Salt Lake Valley and elsewhere. We know that the last mile of transit service to our homes and other sought-after locations is deficient.

This last summer the Legislature’s Transportation Interim Committee conducted a study on transit and transportation funding issues. As a result of that study it has become clear that in order to improve transit coverage across our valleys, increase the frequency of service, offer the option for light rail and commuter rail in other counties and run our transit system for longer hours, we, the voters along the Wasatch Front, need to have the ability to increase funding for transit.

To improve transit service, we need the State Legislature to first authorize local governments to put an increase of transit funding on the ballot. Unfortunately, without that action little can be done to improve transit service. This year, the Legislature has the ability to give local governments that authority.

Raising transit funding may be the quickest and most effective strategy to improve air quality along the Wasatch Front. Because we have a solid backbone of rail transit through TRAX and Frontrunner, adding bus service and improving rail service could occur by adding drivers and buses. This can be ramped up in a matter of months. As transit becomes a more attractive mobility option by being more convenient and accessible, more people will use transit. When more people use transit, more vehicles will come off the road, reducing pollution and congestion on the road.

According to numbers from the UTA and the Department of Air Quality, as compiled by the Salt Lake Chamber Utah Transportation Coalition, it is estimated that a quarter of a cent increase in sales tax would increase service by up to 44 percent, ridership by up to 53 percent, providing roughly 23 million additional annual boardings. That translates to 281,000 tons of air pollution emissions saved, a 41 percent decrease in pollutants and 50,000 vehicles taken off the road every day. These positive changes can happen quickly after the Legislature takes action and we, the voters, approve the sales tax increase for transit improvements.

House Bill 388 authorizes a county, city, or town to increase local option sales and use tax for public transit by one quarter of one cent. No other measure holds the promise to improve air quality as quickly and bring many other benefits for our quality of life.

We encourage the Legislature and Governor to support this initiative in the 2014 Legislative Session so we can all breathe easier.

Ralph Becker is the mayor of Salt Lake City; Anderson and Briscoe are state representatives from Taylorsville and Salt Lake City, respectively.

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