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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Gary Edwards, Salt Lake County Health Department executive director, talks to the media about a pilot initiative to provide county residents with passes to ride on public transit at the Murray Central UTA Station in Murray on Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015.
If everyone that drives to work would take transit just one day a week, 10 million vehicle miles per day could be removed from the roads along the Wasatch Front, amounting to a huge reduction in pollutants —Gary Edwards, Salt Lake County Health Department

MURRAY — Salt Lake County Health Department officials are hoping that free fare cards will help encourage more residents to choose mass transit over contributing to pollutants in the air by driving their own cars.

Officials will dole out 2,000 prepaid fare cards in the next two weeks, with a goal of decreasing air pollution during the winter inversions and summer ozone periods.

"While it may seem like individual efforts won't make much of a difference in reducing high particulate levels during inversions, if county residents reduced the emissions produced in the course of their daily lives, the collective impact on air quality would be significant," said Salt Lake County Health Department Executive Director Gary Edwards.

The pilot program, sponsored by the health department and the Utah Transit Authority, also aims to boost ridership on UTA's bus and rail system, which is now complete and reaches throughout the county and beyond, according to Mike Allegra, general manager for UTA.

"This is a beautiful place to live, and it could be more beautiful if we get together and collectively solve the air quality problem," he said.

Utah's public mass transit system boasted its highest ridership in the last year, but Allegra said the health department's pilot program can help more people "make the shift" and adapt to a different form of transportation.

"There's a cry for more transit options and people are getting out and riding more," he said. "People are more environmentally conscious in this community and are willing to do what they can to make a difference."

Riding a bus, TRAX or FrontRunner train, Allegra said, not only helps the air quality, but provides a cost savings to users, as well as more hands-free time.

Edwards and his wife both need to go to the city for work, but when gasoline hit $3 per gallon, he decided there had to be a better way. So he opted for mass transit, and he spends the off-road time reading and catching up on work. He also walks a quarter-mile to and from the bus stop each day, which provides health benefits in addition to cutting down on pollution.

"This fine particulate matter, that's 100 times smaller than a human hair, poses serious health concerns because it passes through the nose and mouth to the throat and lodges deeply in the lungs and passes across the lungs and into the cardiovascular system," Edwards said, adding that air pollution can aggravate lung diseases and heart conditions, such as asthma, bronchitis and coronary artery disease, among others.

Particulate matter, he said, poses a risk to people of all ages, but most importantly to children, elderly adults and those with acute chronic coronary and respiratory problems.

"We know if we can reduce the number of cars on the roads, we can cut down on pollution," Edwards said.

In addition to the health department's pilot program with UTA, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said the county restricts wood burning on days building up to an inversion, as well as provides financial help with fixing vehicles that have emissions problems. He also said officials are working to provide safer options for residents to walk and bike to work more often.

"Roughly 50 percent of the pollution during these winter inversions comes from the tailpipes of our vehicles," McAdams said, adding that he's heard from many residents that "dealing with air pollution is their top priority."

"Together, we can be a part of the solution to breathe cleaner air," he said.

Five hundred transit passes, preloaded with $10 or enough for about four trips, will be distributed, first-come, first-served, at each of four locations in the valley, including 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 31, at Salt Lake Chinatown, 3370 S. State Street; from 5 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 4 at Valley Fair Mall, 3601 S. 2700 West; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 9 at The District in South Jordan (11400 S. Bangerter Highway); and from 5 to 7 p.m. at South Towne Center, 10450 S. State Street in Sandy.

The cards must be activated online at farepay.rideuta.com, after which they can be used and additional fare money applied for prolonged use. UTA, which reports it has about 20,000 FAREPAY cards already in use, will report how many of the free cards are activated and how often they are used, to determine whether continuation of the program will provide a benefit to county residents in the future.

"If everyone that drives to work would take transit just one day a week, 10 million vehicle miles per day could be removed from the roads along the Wasatch Front, amounting to a huge reduction in pollutants," Edwards said.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards