Come wintertime, the same features that make the Salt Lake region an idyllic ski destination—tall mountains, lots of sunny, blue-bird days—can turn the lowlands into a smoggy nightmare. The metro area is surrounded on nearly all sides by mountain ranges that hold weather systems in place over the valley below. The area is also prone to temperature inversions, where a layer of warm air at higher elevations traps colder air down low. If the inversion gets locked into place, the air stagnates and the pollution and particulates from automobile emissions, chimneys and factories collect in a low-laying haze over Salt Lake County.
“Pollution gets trapped and builds and builds over a two- or three-week period and all of a sudden it looks like Beijing,” says Carl Arky, a Utah Transit Authority (UTA) spokesman. “It’s not very healthy. We see a lot of respiratory problems.”
In December, the Salt Lake region experienced one of its first bad inversions of the season. A soupy haze settled in. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality rated the air between orange (air unhealthy for sensitive groups) and red (unhealthy for everyone).
Automobile emissions account for more than half the pollution in Utah. As such, getting people out of their cars during “red flag” days can make an important impact during an inversion. On December 22, in an effort to do just that, UTA, Salt Lake City Council and the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office partnered to fund a free fare day on all UTA buses, commuter rail and light rail.
The free fares had the desired effect. UTA saw a marked system-wide bump in ridership and estimates a big reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But, free rides cost the agency money and, short of a dedicated funding stream or new partnerships, it doesn’t think it can afford to make free fare days a recurring event. Local transit advocates were happy to see the bump in ridership, but rather than focusing on free fares, think the agency should spend money to improve transit service in a way that will naturally draw in new riders.
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