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For better air quality, take the train

FILE — Rebecca Henshaw autographs a special "Take the Pledge" UTA bus at the Intermodal Hub in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016.  To fulfill their pledge, people are asked to help "clear the air" by riding UTA at least one additional time during
FILE — Rebecca Henshaw autographs a special "Take the Pledge" UTA bus at the Intermodal Hub in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. To fulfill their pledge, people are asked to help "clear the air" by riding UTA at least one additional time during the month February. This can be accomplished by simply tapping on and off using the free card on any UTA bus, TRAX or FrontRunner train, then using it to ride UTA once during the next week.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Mass transit in Utah overcame much initial skepticism and opposition. Utahns have been riding TRAX and FrontRunner to work, school, Jazz games, general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and shopping for many years now. The fans outnumber the detractors by a bunch. Now you can ride the train from North Ogden or Provo to the Salt Lake International Airport and most places in between.

Mass transit is about to become even more popular for several reasons. Traffic in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons has exceeded capacity during ski season for several years now. Clearly, a transit solution is needed. Switzerland’s Zermatt resort lies at the top of a canyon almost identical to Little Cottonwood Canyon, with space for only a road, a river and a railroad right of way. At Zermatt, cars can’t proceed beyond the lower canyon. People then board frequently arriving trains to get to the resort.

Transit in Cottonwood Canyons would be fed by one or more extensions of TRAX from the main line along I-15 by extensions along 9400 South or 7200 South.

The University of Utah will soon start a major rebuilding and expansion of the University Hospital, the medical school and ancillary clinics and schools. There is no room for new roads to serve these expanded facilities as well as the very busy main campus. University commuters already use TRAX’s University line by the thousands. TRAX brings half of U football game attendees to Rice-Eccles Stadium. In addition, the expansion of services and facilities on the Veterans Affairs medical campus and the growth at the U Research Park have created more traffic. The pressure for mass transit in the northeast sector of the valley will only increase.

The new Eccles Theater on Main Street has 2,500 seats and will bring Broadway-class productions to the area. Next door to the theater, the 111 Main office building of 24 floors nears completion. The new owners of The Gateway have announced they will invest $30 million in upgrades. The Cicero Group is buying a large office building on the north end of The Gateway and will bring their 80 Salt Lake-based employees to the area. A big draw for this younger set of people is the excellent access to TRAX and FrontRunner. Check out the construction of condos and apartments to the north of Gateway and scattered through the downtown area. Again, much of the appeal for buying these units is the proximity of transit. For many of these city dwellers, transit will take the place of a second car. All these exciting developments will create more transportation demand.

In the next 30 years population along the Wasatch Front is expected to double. There isn’t enough space to build freeways to accommodate all the future commuters. Do this little thought experiment: Where would you build another road through Parley’s Canyon? Through the Point of the Mountain area? From southern Davis County into Salt Lake County? There also isn’t enough money to buy rights of way for freeways or expressways through developed areas. And road construction in urban areas is excessively expensive.

Finally, air quality creates the real ceiling on our growth and development. The ski and tourism industry, the business community and economic development leaders are all very concerned about the negative implications from our poor air quality. More and more, individual Utahns are rising up against poor air quality. We all know we need to confront this issue. We can’t postpone it any longer. Nor is it merely an economic matter. It’s a matter of health for our children, our elderly, those with respiratory conditions. But it’s a major quality-of-life issue for all of us.

The biggest contributor to bad air is the automobile, especially the one containing only one person. Cleaner cars and fuels will help. But mass transit presents perhaps the greatest opportunity for keeping our air clean while expanding our population and growing our economy. Everyone must contribute to the solution. Most of us can use mass transit more frequently without great sacrifice. As your contribution please consider doing just that.

Greg Bell is the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association. He is the former Republican lieutenant governor of Utah.