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When we beat COVID-19, we cannot backtrack on air pollution

SHARE When we beat COVID-19, we cannot backtrack on air pollution

A layer of haze covers the Salt Lake Valley on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

As Utah begins to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, we have an opportunity to do things differently. Our lives have changed because of coronavirus, and while it has been difficult, we have learned a lot. We have also confirmed something that we have known for a long time: less cars on the road means cleaner air.

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic in Utah, 40% to 50% fewer cars were on the roads. Key pollutant levels fell to record lows.

Fewer cars means fewer accidents, less pollution from mobile sources and decreased congestion. This is a trend that can continue if done correctly, and elected leaders should seize the opportunity. We must ensure that recent improvements continue well into the future.

Expand teleworking

We need a metrics-based plan to permanently move a defined number of jobs to telecommuting in the Salt Lake Valley. This will require coordination with the state and Utah’s largest employers to move the appropriate number of jobs from the corporate office to the home office. As the state’s second-strongest executive and the leader of the economic engine of Utah, no one is better positioned to lead this teleworking initiative than the Salt Lake County mayor.

Make public transportation available to all

Busses are considered perhaps the most fiscally responsible form of public transportation that benefits the most people, particularly the underserved. When you look at a map of the county, you will quickly see that highways and rail lines are located far from the western and southern parts of the valley. Services should be expanded to ensure that everyone who wants to take public transportation can do so.

Lead by example

Salt Lake County government should not contribute to Utah’s poor air quality. All county-owned vehicles should be moved to Tier 3 gasoline. This can be done through the natural attrition of vehicles to ensure that costs do not increase. As of today, Salt Lake County does not even know how many buildings they own. We need a coordinated effort to inventory, audit and improve the energy efficiency of each of these county-owned buildings. The county should also lead out on finding and adopting new technologies that can clean our environment and ensure that developments such as the inland port are carbon neutral.

Smart growth

It’s tough to say that we are serious about air quality when we approve developments that increase the amount of cars on the road by 300%, with no plan for transit or infrastructure. That is exactly what the Olympia Hills development did.

What begins as a localized problem of increased traffic counts, a lack of public schools in the area and poor infrastructure quickly becomes a countywide issue when hundreds of thousands of new cars significantly increase emissions and particulate matter. Much like COVID-19, air pollution knows no borders.

Without appropriate planning for transit and transportation options, this becomes the norm. The county should work with cities and towns to enact smart growth policies that account for the many needs of our growing state.

With the right vision, understanding of issues, and strong collaboration between lawmakers and the community, we can move the needle on air quality. These ideas and policies like them can be implemented right here in Salt Lake County to make our home an even better place to live.

Trent Staggs is the current mayor of Riverton and a candidate for Salt Lake County mayor.