Rick Bowmer, Associated Press Archives
A poor air quality sign is posted over a highway in Salt Lake City.

Utah residents are all too familiar with the phenomenon of inversions that trap cold air beneath warm air and significantly contribute to the problem of air pollution. Indeed, there have been several days this winter when Utah had the worst air quality in the country. This is why Gov. Gary Herbert and a range of policymakers have put forth specific measures to address our region’s air quality.

The most important of these recommendations is that Utah move to embrace the so-called “Tier 3” fuel and vehicle standards called for by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. We need these standards now, and cannot wait until the EPA requires them for the nation as a whole.

Tier 3 standards reduce sulfur content in gasoline to 10 parts per million, down from the current 30 parts per million. They would also establish cleaner-burning emission controls on new vehicles. The standards yield dramatic reductions in levels of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds. Although all cars benefit from requiring Tier 3 fuel immediately, the benefits are dramatically improved as Tier 3 cars begin to enter the market. Indeed, the Utah Air Quality Board projects this action will reduce pollutants by up to 80 percent: That’s like taking four cars off the road for every fifth one that remains.

Nationwide, the EPA estimates that Tier 3 will produce $33 billion in annual health benefits by the end of the next decade, the equivalent of taking 33 million cars off the road. But the benefits to the Wasatch Front in Utah are far more pronounced: of the seven U.S. counties that benefit the most from Tier 3 fuel, all are in northern Utah.

Other air-quality steps should follow as well. We like a recommendation by Envision Utah, a public-private partnership, to add a quarter-cent sales tax along the Wasatch Front to expand mass transit. The Salt Lake-Ogden-Provo metropolitan area already has an impressive mass-transit nucleus in place, combining light rail, commuter rail and buses. The Utah Transit Authority says 25 percent of people who work in downtown Salt Lake City commute there by transit.

That is an indicator that Utahns have a desire to leave their cars home when it’s convenient. It’s time not only to increase the percentage of transit riders downtown, but to provide realistic alternatives for people who work in other parts of the Wasatch Front as well. UTA says another quarter cent tax would allow an expansion to increase ridership by another 50 percent, growing to 90 percent by five years. This would replace 3,600 tons of auto emissions per year.

In addition to all this, the state should expand its variable toll lanes. Currently, only the HOV lane on I-15 imposes such a toll on drivers who have registered for the toll and who do not otherwise qualify for free access to the lane for having two or more people in the car. These tolls change depending on congestion levels.

Congestion pricing provides an incentive for people to drive during off-peak hours, reducing the pollution caused by slow-moving traffic during rush hours. But the policy would work better if it covered more lanes on more freeways.

These changes should be in the state’s long-term plans. But putting Tier 3 fuel requirements in place now is the lynchpin of that process. They will impost costs on fuel refineries to upgrade. Some insist the costs aren’t worth the benefits. Others are concerned about Utah’s adoption of these standards prior to the nation as a whole.

Those views are short-sighted. Utah already is an island by virtue of the geography of the Wasatch Front, which causes dirty air to be trapped in the atmosphere in larger amounts than would be found in flatter terrain. Utahns face greater health risks as a result — and Tier 3 standards offer a more immediate impact in Utah than anywhere else. 

Lawmakers should ensure that they are part of the solution and not the problem. They should support Herbert’s Tier 3 standards, and consider a quarter-cent transit tax hike and congestion pricing.

Most importantly, all of us must not fall into the trap of resigning ourselves to inevitable dirty air in northern Utah. This problem can be solved.