By Derek Jacobs
SALT LAKE CITY – Salt Lake City’s mayor said he’s determined to improve the quality of air, assured residents that if the state does nothing the city will still act and outlined a specific plan to turn this dream into a reality during his annual State of the City address.
Mayor Ralph Becker set the scene on the sixth floor in Rice-Eccles Stadium Tower midday Wednesday so that the audience could look out on the capital city as Becker declared, “We’re killing our own future.”
The mayor said the people are tired of hearing about air quality and not having anyone do anything about it. He outlined five things he believes will improve air quality. Those methods include: allocate more money for public transit, make lower sulphur gasoline available, tighten air quality standards to meet Utah’s needs, increase the gasoline tax and require more buildings to be energy efficient.
More money to public transit means that taxes used for transit would increase from point-six percent to a full one percent. Becker explained that UTA’s plans are to increase frequency of the buses, and run the train and bus system longer. The mayor’s vision is that one day, “We can go easily to a bus or rail stop and know a bus or train will come in the next 10 minutes.”
Becker’s wants to increase the gasoline tax. He said, “nearly $400 million from the state’s general fund goes to roads each year.” The mayor’s ideal would require the gasoline tax completely cover road construction and maintenance. This in turn would encourage less people to drive. “At an additional $1 per gallon, nearly two-thirds (of drivers) would reduce their vehicle use.”
Becker said that the Salt Lake City government will set the example. The city has already converted city fleet vehicles to clean fuels and low-emission vehicles, created the Clear the Air Challenge, adopted anti-idling ordinances, doubled bike lanes and required new taxi fleets to have low- or no-emission vehicles.
The mayor called for the Utah Legislature to act promptly. “So this is our ask: Adopt the most current building codes for energy efficiency so we can reduce energy use overall and improve our air quality as soon as possible. And if you cannot or will not, let us do it. We can get it done locally,” Becker said.
Becker identified economic growth as a reason to clean up Salt Lake’s air. “The No. 1 reason businesses choose not to come to Utah is because of our bad air quality,” he said.
Ian Shelledy and Robert Bell, founders of a non-profit organization called Sustainable Startups, agreed with the mayor that if the air quality problem is solved the economy will grow. Bell said, “I think that bad air quality is probably the biggest detriment to the economic development” Ian expounded on that by explaining how big companies look at Salt Lake and see that the air quality problem is not being addressed and that is a big argument not to relocate here. “If (Salt Lake) can’t solve these types of problems, do they want to have their business here? No. Probably not.”
Browne Sebright, a University of Utah student from North Carolina, was particularly disturbed as he spent his first winter in Salt Lake. He explained his first reaction to the bad air, ”All the images of Utah are always pristine and clean so when I first moved here my first winter was a big shock.”
Browne loves running in the winter and he says the pollution makes exercising much less appealing. He did say that he has never heard of a student leaving Utah because of the air, it is just a downside of living here. Even though Browne has a car he never uses it because the public transit is much easier for him.
Two students that go to the extent of wearing air-filtration masks when they go outside are Kalon Wright and Heather McCartin. They are very active outdoors and the bad air gets in the way, they go up to the mountains to get out of the smog and that takes a lot of time. Heather has a lung disease, cystic fibrosis, and she still loves Salt Lake and she loves the culture. She wants to live in Utah yet will have to move to places like Park City to get to cleaner air. They both refuse to have kids in such an environment. “If I had kids it would be a total deal breaker, I just can’t imagine that I would feel OK taking the kids out to play.” They are hopeful that in five years, enough progress will have made to improve the air so that they can remain in Salt Lake.
To find out more information about what Salt Lake is doing and to give input you can visit the City’s Sustainability Dashboard at slcgov.com.