Gov. Gary Herbert met with transportation officials Tuesday to try to clear the air, literally. They discussed privately how to persuade more Utahns to ride mass transit or carpool to reduce pollution.
But exactly how they hope to do it remains, for now, a bit murky, much like the air during the inversions that they are trying to help clear.
"Governor Herbert recognizes that air quality is indeed a problem and is something he wants to focus on," said Allyson Isom, Herbert’s deputy chief of staff, after his meeting with officials from the Utah Transit Authority and the Utah Department of Transportation.
"We need to get people out of their cars and onto mass transit," she said. So the group discussed possibilities ranging from better education to persuading more employers to buy passes for employees. She said they also discussed several innovative solutions to make mass transit more affordable or to encourage carpooling, but are not yet ready to discuss them publicly without more research.
But, "It comes down to two primary elements: education and financial incentives" to get people to use mass transit, Isom said.
UTA General Manager Michael Allegra said among ideas is perhaps finding more businesses to sponsor free rides on bad air days, such as Rio Tinto offered recently via a web site.
"One day ridership [on bad air days] is an attractive solution to us," Allegra said. "But frankly they are looking for long-term impacts on our ridership," and improving ridership on all days.
Isom says such possible longer term solutions include finding ways to persuade more employers to help buy transit passes for employees. Also, they discussed how to encourage more flexible work schedules to reduce congestion in peak drive times, as well as incentives for alternative fuels and carpooling. Isom said the state is willing to be a leader in such areas with its own employees.
Inversions are inevitable, but ill effects can still be reduced, Isom said. "It is part of our topography, meteorology and geography. Those things are out of our control, but what we can control is how many people are utilizing public transit options throughout the year."
Herbert held the meeting Tuesday among increasing calls to help remedy inversions in northern Utah, which has suffered the nation’s unhealthiest air for much of the past month.
PM 2.5 pollution, much of it exhaust from fossil fuel-burning, built up to unhealthy levels during an inversion, with pollution at four times the federal Clean Air Act’s health-based standards in Utah Valley.
The Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment last week urged Herbert to declare a "health emergency" because of the smog. More than 100 doctors signed the letter, which advocated free rides on mass transit during "red" air-quality action days.
In addition, the doctors’ group, along with the Utah Moms for Clean Air, complained that informative air-quality messages were for a time not appearing on electronic freeway sign boards in the Salt Lake Valley. UDOT disputed the idea that the air-quality alerts were nixed to save face during the Sundance film festival and the Outdoor Retailers Association meeting last week.
Cherise Udell, president of the mother’s group, was pleased to hear that Herbert was actively working on the issue. She said she hoped it was a first step toward making northern Utah’s transit system more user-friendly, convenient enough that it becomes more attractive to use more of the time.
"This is a necessary component of what must be a much larger plan," she said, noting that additional reductions are needed by industry and other sources besides transportation.
Department of Environmental Quality Director Amanda Smith recently told a meeting with health and environment advocates that she has been told by the governor that air quality is a top priority for her agency.
"That is what he’s put at the top of my agenda," she said.
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