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Clearing the Air: More Utahns Opt for Public Transit

Utahns are well-acquainted with the dirty air lurking beyond their front doors in a winter inversion or summer ozone day.  A long string of unhealthy air days this winter has many residents saying "enough". Today KUER News and RadioWest begin “Clearing the Air,” a special series aimed at exploring the problem of Utah’s poor air quality and ways to improve it.  One of the contributing factors is car emissions, but is public transit a viable option for those living on the Wasatch Front? Can people use their cars less without compromising their lifestyle? 

It’s still dark and biting cold on a Thursday morning when Elizabeth Neilson leaves her home on Salt Lake City’s east bench and drives west across town to catch the 7:07 FrontRunner South train.

At Salt Lake Central Station, Neilson parks her car and boards the train. It’ll be nearly two hours before she arrives at her office in Provo; A trip that would take 45 minutes to an hour if she stayed in her car and traveled south on I-15.

Instead she boards the train and settles into her warm seat, immediately opening her laptop. This is how her commute begins. And she readily admits this is the easy part.

“Today we’re watching the sun rise out of the train," Neilson says. "It’s nice. I don’t get to pay attention to that when I’m white knuckles on the freeway.”

Neilson says buying round-trip tickets on FrontRunner is only slightly cheaper than filling the tank of her Subaru several times a week.  But saving money is not her reason for using public transit. She’s more concerned about reducing the air pollution she would otherwise be contributing to.

Her whole routine requires a lot planning: strategizing multiple routes, packing meals and wearing comfortable, weather-appropriate clothes.

“I kind of think that around here you’ve got to want it," Neilson says. "Because it isn’t necessarily the path of least resistance.”

Neilson would like to see a more comprehensive network of bus and TRAX lines that cover more ground, with tighter connections.

Once in Provo, Neilson takes a bench in the deserted lot, and waits. The current temperature is nine degrees

“This is where the less efficient and more frustrating part of the commute comes in," Neilson says.

Neilson has a choice at this point between sitting outside for 20 minutes or sitting on the bus for 20 minutes.”

“Yeah, waiting while they drive all over town, even though the bus we’re waiting for will be direct once we’re done waiting for it," she says.

After about a 5 minute bus ride Neilson is deposited near an overpass in Provo.

She navigates the shoulder of a busy road for about half a mile before finally arriving at her office.

“We’re mere moments from a hot beverage," Neilson says.

Andrew Frueh is vice president of Creative and Technical services at Infuse Medical in Lehi. He and his wife sold their second car once the FrontRunner south line was up and running. Frueh says it was the next logical step in reducing his family’s environmental impact.

"Releasing it is almost like a challenge at first," Frueh says. "You ask yourself, can I actually live without a car? You’re kind of like, ‘I don’t have a car in the parking lot.’ It almost feels like you’re stranded or something.”

Like Elizabeth Neilson, Frueh has a fairly easy time getting on the train, but has to make a 20 minute trek on foot from the train station to his office.

“We’re so used to being a car-driven society," Frueh says. "Even the notion of being a pedestrian just blows people away sometimes. You mention to somebody that, oh it’s just a 20 minute walk. And the reactions you get can be interesting.”

Frueh says he wouldn’t call his commute a sacrifice as much as an adjustment.

According to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, car emissions account for more than half of the pollution on winter inversion days. Homes and small businesses account for about 32 percent and the rest, about 11 percent, is caused by industry.

That’s why Democrats in the Utah State Legislature are prepared to sweep the corners of the budget to pay the way for TRAX and bus-riders on bad air-days. Salt Lake County Democratic Representative Joel Briscoe says he’d like to see lawmakers agree to try it just once.

“I’m hoping that we can convince the legislature that the air is so bad, it’s having an impact on our economy, that for the sake of good business, for the sake of good health, we should give it a try for one year and see what happens," Briscoe says.

Utah Democrats are also sponsoring legislation to set up a fund to promote UTA’s operations.

Matt Sibul is UTA’s Chief Planning Officer. He says giving away service for free isn’t fair to those who buy monthly passes. But he says corporations or governments can buy passes and distribute them as they wish.

“Ultimately for us it’s getting more service out on the street," Sibul says. "So it’s easier for people to connect. The number one reason that people cite that they don’t take transit actually isn’t related to the cost. It’s related to the convenience.”

Sibul says on days where UTA offers service for free, ridership increases by about 50 percent.

Most recently UTA completed the FrontRunner south and airport TRAX lines. The Sugar House street car line will be up and running next winter. Sibul says UTA’s goal is to maximize the investments that have already been made.

“Next for us is probably not a lot of new capital projects," Sibul says. But it’s filling in with a lot of connecting bus service, improving our core bus network and improving frequencies and making it just easier for people to get around.”

For example, UTA plans to bring back rail service between downtown salt Lake City and the University of Utah. Right now people have to transfer at the courthouse before going east. Sibul says that would improve frequency on the university line to every 7 ½ minutes from 15 minutes.

Other proposals to expand service along the Wasatch front are in the works. In Utah County, UTA is planning a 10 ½ mile light rail line that would connect Orem by way of Brigham Young University to downtown Provo. A similar plan is in the works for Ogden. Sibul says the only obstacle standing between riders and expanded service is money to finance more transit infrastructure.

Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.
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