It bothers me that so many “Utah air quality” oriented pages talk so much about driving less. There are reasons why that isn’t going to amount to much:

Most of the miles that Utahan’s drive are not elective. I for one commute to work every week-day and don’t go hardly anywhere else.

Most Utahan’s don’t have really decent alternatives (that they know about, see pollution masks for bikers below). For example, my route would take 2:20 according to http://www.rideuta.com. Compared to a 15 minute drive, that is not rational. (Admittedly, some people may have good bus routes available, and I will add that a 30 minute ride may actually be superior to a 15 minute drive, because it may enable the rider to get something else done during the ride.)

While Utah’s leadership sits on their hands and waits for the EPA to turn the screws, here are some of my ideas on what they could do about the problem (Gary Herbert, Cheryl Heying, Ralph Becker, here’s looking at you).

Short Term Proposals:

(Things that can be done today.)

  1. Create a new smog tax, just large enough to pay for filtering equipment that would be distributed to elderly and other sensitive people. This equipment is very affordable, around $100-200 per person (one HEPA filter per room plus one pollution filtering mask to allow them to go outside). Such a tax should be built into the car registration tax, and it should be proportional to the emissions test results and the number of miles driven. Also, the smog tax should apply to industrial point sources which are in the valley’s air space. This tax would have two effects: 1) directly improve the health problems caused by the pollution, 2) force polluters to bear the costs of their actions, placing a dis-incentive on polluting.

  2. Tighten emission controls on point source polluters. I don’t even know who they are anymore. (Kennecot?) If they can’t afford upgrades then they don’t belong in our sensitive air-space (unless perhaps if they can afford to shut down during inversions, or unless perhaps they can afford to pay a reflective smog tax, as above).

  3. Create incentives for bicycles. For example, bike rebates. Decent commuter bikes start around $500, a mere fraction of a typical cash-for-clunkers rebate. (Maybe add $200 for safety equipment.)

    • Bicycle incentives should include a rebate on smog filtering masks, since we want people to ride especially when the air is bad. The Techno Respro is $45 on Amazon and it works wonders (I am not affiliated). This type of mask increases breathing resistance (but not too much), and it virtually eliminates PM 2.5, which is critical.

    • Bicycle lanes in SLC are generally good things, but there are certain areas that need improvement. 1300 S over the train tracks (between 500 and 700 W) is currently a death trap, and 1700 S uphill from 900 E to 1500 E needs an alternate, i.e. Westminster Ave, for two examples.

    • (See my other page if commuting by bike happens to interest you.)

  4. Create incentives for adding engine block heaters to cars, or if not incentives, create programs to educate and provide direction (incentives are better, this only costs ~$200 per car, including labor). The emissions on the majority of cars are many times worse when the car is cold, also many people need to idle in order to warm up and de-ice. Engine block heaters are far more efficient than idling. I’m in the process of adding an engine block heater to my Corolla just because I want the warm fuzzy that I did something that will significantly reduce my impact on the valley’s air quality. The heater itself is only $40, but I don’t see most people taking this on unless there is an incentive. Warm fuzzies are only worth so much (to some people closer to $0 than to $200).

Long Term Proposals:

The auto industry has slowly improved vehicle emissions controls over past decades. Vehicles with extremely low emission levels are now a reality. However, not all makers are using the highest level of technology available, and it will take decades for old cars like my 89 Corolla to leave the road and pass into the crusher. Retrofit is (almost) always preferable over replacement. Unfortunately, other than engine block heaters, I don’t know of any way to retrofit improved controls on conventional engines without replacing the engine, which on most cars would cost over $3,000. Waiting for a technology revolution in automobiles could take 20 years or more, however passive change not the only long-term option.

  1. Follow CARB-type initiatives, i.e. mandate auto sellers to achieve a percentage of PZEV sales. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PZEV) This also helps to accelerate the technology change by forcing auto makers to shoot for higher targets.

  2. Create incentives to get older cars out of the inversion air-space. This could take many different forms, such as raising registration costs in urban areas whilst lowering registration in rural areas, or simply using an emissions tax as I mentioned earlier, or it could mean some kind of rebate for destroying older cars.

  3. Fix whatever is wrong with UTA. I don’t know what the problem is but right now I can walk to work faster then bus can get me there, and I can bike in under a third the time.

  4. Create a program to retrofit improved emissions controls on older vehicles. (If someone as progressive as me doesn’t know how to get a emissions reduction retrofit, then neither do any lay people. We need a real expert to step in.)

Utah has a real problem, and it has a real solution. All we need now is a real leader.