SALT LAKE CITY — The mayors of Salt Lake City and Ogden are calling on the Utah Legislature to get serious about the Wasatch Front's notorious air quality, asserting that reforms such as an increase in gas tax or implementing driving restrictions on bad air days should be considered.
Pointing to Utah's bad air as "grossly unacceptable," Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker said an entire slate of solutions needs to be embraced by employers, state and local agencies, the Utah Legislature and individual residents.
"Our same beautiful mountains also trap our winter air," Becker said, causing a problem that "demands extraordinary solutions."
Becker was joined by Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell at a Thursday press conference, where the two detailed what they believe merits a "robust" discussion Utah's Capitol Hill.
"We may not agree on all the approaches," Becker said, "but we want to further the dialogue and push ourselves to take meaningful action to improve our air quality."
Caldwell said his city has worked hard to position itself as a premiere outdoor destination, but those efforts are compromised by ugly inversions that cloak Weber County's natural beauty.
"If we can't see those places and we can't go outside, all of our efforts are for naught," Caldwell said.
The two outlined what steps their cities have taken on a local level to reduce air pollution, such as converting fleets to natural gas and sponsoring anti-idling campaigns.
Becker also referenced the free transit passes that are given to city employees, its ongoing efforts to help Salt Lake City become a more bicycle-friendly city and changing land use codes around transit hubs to encourage walkable communities.
In Ogden, leaders there worked with the Utah Transit Authority to begin a ski day program on buses traveling to ski resorts such as Snowbasin and Powder Mountain. Caldwell said in a 10-day period in December, there were 2,700 users who took advantage of the option.
Employers need to get in on the action by providing free or discounted transit passes to their workers, allowing flex-time schedules to reduce rush-hour traffic congestion and encouraging teleworking from home, Caldwell and Becker said. Other ideas include trip reduction mandates for companies that employ more than 100 people.
Becker, a former Utah lawmaker for 11 years, said some of the real regulatory changes can happen at the Utah Legislature, where lawmakers should consider hiking the gas tax to direct more revenue into mass transit. He also called on legislators to repeal a law passed a couple of decades ago that prevents state agencies from making rules that invoke tougher standards than what the federal government does.
In this case, the Utah Division of Air Quality can't implement rules that are tougher than the provisions of the federal Clean Air Act.
Becker praised the public for getting so involved in the air quality issue this session, adding the public cry in response to the worst inversions in Salt Lake City in nearly a decade should motivate lawmakers.
"There's no greater force in this state" than the power of public involvement, he noted. "I encourage the public to weigh in. We want our Legislature to certainly take more action than they have leading up to this year."
House Democrats unveiled a number of bills this week to tackle the issue, but it remains to be seen how far those measures will go in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
Republicans say they are working with the governor's office to draft their own air quality bills, but they have declined to provide any details.
Although state senators have discussed raising the gas tax or increasing the local-option sales tax. it hasn't been in the context of public transit. It has been aimed at improving roads, and even that has proved a tough sell.
"It hasn't been received too well," said Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton. "The problem with gas tax is we keep talking about it but it's hard to get anyone to put their arms around it."
Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, said he agrees that Utah lawmakers need to repeal the law that prevents air quality regulators from implementing tougher limits.
"You've got a national standards that may be high but is not addressing the particular needs on the local level," Davis said, noting the problems are different in Salt Lake Valley than they are in Cache Valley or Utah Valley.
But a Republican colleague expressed caution.
"I think we need to be very careful about looking at a standard that would be different than the federal government," Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said.
So far this session, it has been mostly Gov. Gary Herbert in the hot seat with clean air activists who claim he is not doing enough to tackle the air quality problem. Multiple rallies have been held, including a "coff-in" Wednesday at his offices.
On Thursday, Herbert said directing sales tax revenue to UTA is "worth discussing," but he is not ready to support it at this point.
"There's some concern about frugality at UTA and how much more we need there," he said.
Herbert added that a gas tax increase should also be a topic of discussion, but he stopped short of saying he would support it if it was diverted to mass transit.
"I'm not certain I am there yet," he said.
He added that a possible gas tax increase is an issue that keeps cropping up.
"What we've lost in inflation bears discussion."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Dennis Romboy
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