Qiling Wang, Deseret News
FILE - Smog covers Salt Lake City as an inversion lingers on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. Would more parking at the Utah State Capitol be bad for the air? Like so much else that happens at the Utah State Capitol this time of year, this discussion can get a bit distorted.

I started the 2019 legislative session the way I usually do — by taking FrontRunner to the North Temple Station and grabbing bus No. 500 to the State Capitol.

And, just as in previous years, I sat mostly alone on that bus, with the exception of two or three well-dressed people and, notably, one lawmaker. Together, we took maybe three or four cars off the morning freeway rush, which probably didn't do much to stem the mounting haze in the valley below.

I'm not trying to portray myself as exceptionally virtuous. I live where mass transit is nearby and convenient. I've also done the math and calculated how much I can save by leaving much of my commute to UTA (I still have to drive to the station).

But if I were in a hurry, as sometimes happens, I would shamelessly drive and use my press parking pass to get a good spot. I'm a red-blooded American, after all.

Mass transit isn't always convenient. Even if it was, nudging people onto a bus or train is an art form few, if any, bureaucrats or politicians have mastered. And yet air quality remains near the top of issues the public would like state lawmakers to address.

The subject came up Monday in the midst of talk about tax cuts and possibly changing the Medicaid expansion voters approved in November. Both Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson opened the new legislative session by also mentioning that they hope the state office building, an architecturally out-of-place structure directly north of the Capitol, could be razed and rebuilt in a way that allows for a lot more parking on the hill.

Anyone trying to get near the Capitol during the Legislature's annual 45-day session knows the ordeal, and the eventual hike either up or down a sometimes-slippery hill.

But to mass-transit advocates, building parking spots is the same as encouraging people to drive. Make parking scarce and they will seek alternatives, the theory goes. That's probably about 1/3 right. Another other part of the equation would be to provide reliable and frequent transit alternatives. And another third would be to change the culture. Those last two are doozies.

In an afternoon meeting with the media, Adams confronted the question by saying, "I think the cars are here anyway." He also defended the Legislature's work in recent years to bolster transportation, including mass transit. Indeed, it's hard to find many metro areas this size, or larger, with a rail transit system comparable to TRAX and FrontRunner, or with dedicated bus lanes such as in Provo or West Valley City.

Wilson said it's a question of treating members of the public right when they want to participate in free and open government.

"It's actually not that we're encouraging more people to drive," he said at a separate afternoon press conference. "We'd like them to come up here any way they can. Right now they're driving up here and they're parking a mile away. The press and us, we don't have to deal with that, but our poor constituents are parking clear up the streets half a mile, three quarters of a mile away, and they don't feel like it's a welcoming and easy place to get to.

"I don't actually think we're being very good neighbors either, to be honest," he said. "We put all these cars in front of people's homes clear up the hill."

Like so much else that happens at the State Capitol this time of year, this discussion can get a bit distorted. Capitol parking is an issue 45 days out of the year, and plentiful the other 320.

It's just that those 45 days happen to coincide with what typically is the worst air-quality season each year.

And then there is the symbolic factor.

Lawmakers this year are likely to consider monetary incentives to convert wood-burning stoves and fireplaces to natural gas, maybe outlaw wood burning completely during the winter or perhaps do other things that would help the air. One year from now, major gas retailers and refineries will be switching to cleaner Tier III gasoline in Utah, to reduce pollution from automobiles.

2 comments on this story

These will be much more effective than anything related to getting to the Capitol.

Adams and Wilson are right, the cars already are up there, scattered all over the place. They pollute as they slowly drive around, looking for a place to stop. So go ahead, build more parking, but it also wouldn't hurt to fund more frequent buses to and from downtown during these 45 days. My guess is more people would ride them if they were convenient.

Sometimes, little things can send a big message to people who want a sign their politicians hear their concerns about the air.