In many respects, Salt Lake City sits in an enviable position vis-à-vis other cities around the country, with low unemployment, a well-educated workforce and a strong quality of life. Dubbed “the new West,” the city was recently profiled in the Atlantic/National Journal series of articles, “The Next Economy,” seeking lessons to be learned nationwide as the country’s economic health gradually improves.
The Washington-based publications focused on four topics: the city’s strong export-driven economy, Utah’s approach to immigration, an interview with Mayor Ralph Becker on escaping the recession — and air quality.
This last issue presents a very strong negative. It could — if the city and state leaders aren’t careful — begin to overpower the positives. Unfortunately, Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front are becoming known nationally for our unhealthy and uncomfortable winter inversion seasons.
There are signs that the state has turned a corner, at least in terms of public consciousness. Enough legislators, policymakers and state agency employees understand that — simply because the winter season has turned to spring — we must continue our focus.
On Friday, Gov. Gary Herbert signed eight bills passed by the Legislature designed to make progress on air quality. These include measures to facilitate electrical vehicle charging stations, to coordinate state agencies’ best practices, to address homes whose only source of heat is wood burning, tax credits for energy-efficient vehicles, a resolution on clean-burning fuels, and state vehicle efficiency requirements.
These are all small steps in the right direction. But they don’t address the biggest issue, moving the state to so-called “Tier 3” fuel standards for automobiles as soon as possible. We need to do this before the Environmental Protection Agency requirements become mandatory across the nation in 2017.
The Atlantic/National Journal piece quoted Ingrid Griffee, a 38-year-old mother of four and activist with Utah Moms for Clean Air, as saying, "It's great to see so many bills discussed on the Hill, and they all did a small little piece, but they were not the systemic changes that we hope could be accomplished.”
Griffee is right: We still look to Herbert and Utah Department of Air Quality to take action on Tier 3 fuel standards, as well as other measures to improve the air quality of the Wasatch basin.
In his own interview in the Atlantic/National Journal series, Becker cited air quality as the first of the concerns that he has for Salt Lake’s economy.
Becker added: “We've also been the great beneficiaries of the national trend of more and more people moving back into and living in cities. I would attribute part of this to the University of Utah, which is this incredible engine of entrepreneurial activity and spin-offs. There is just this flow of new businesses that brings lots of new energy into the community. We have a young workforce that is relatively well educated and an area that has a very high quality of life. People find it easy and enjoyable to live here for a variety of reasons. We weren't immune from (the recession), but we didn't experience it the way other people did.”
We can’t let negatives on air quality cast such a shadow on these economic development positives that Salt Lake City and Utah have to offer.