SLC Mayor Becker Gives “State of the Air” Address

Mayor Ralph Becker

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker speaks about air pollution at the University of Utah on Jan. 8, 2014.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker replaced his normal State of the City address with a rousing speech calling for increased action by local and state governments to tackle Utah’s air quality issues. Read the transcript below and learn more about SLC’s sustainability initiative at SLC Green’s website.

Mayor Ralph Becker
State of the City Address
January 8, 2014
Rice-Eccles Stadium Tower

Good afternoon.

And welcome to the members of the Salt Lake City Council.

I’ve invited you all here for a reason. I specifically chose this location and this room for my annual State of the City address so you could look out the window and contemplate our future – the future state of our great city.

Normally the Mayor would present a list of all the initiatives that we in City Hall have championed this past year. I’m proud of our work as we continue to make strides in the areas of social justice, economic development, transit and mobility, the arts, education and neighborhoods. I’ve provided a separate State of the City handout that highlights our accomplishments and initiatives. But today I will focus on a threat to the State of our City.

You may recall that last year at this time I focused on health – the health of our city and of us as individuals. Despite the recent flurry of media coverage, our health depends on the quality of our air even more than any of us may realize. It directly impacts our physical health and our economic health, not to mention our mental health.

Like so many of us, I love Salt Lake City. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But we’re killing our own future.

There is a demonstrable connection between our air quality and our physical health. We know the particulate matter in our air is directly linked to an increase in heart attacks, and that seniors and children are particularly at risk of exacerbated lung and cardiovascular conditions when we see spikes in poor air quality.

This is completely unacceptable.

There are also increasing instances in which we’re losing potential new jobs and potential tax revenue from businesses for the State of Utah. According to Jeff Edwards, the director of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, the number one reason businesses choose not to come to Utah is because of our bad air quality. I hear this point reinforced time after time from other business leaders in our City and from prospective companies considering a move to Utah.
And it is especially disconcerting when I hear it from folks here at the University of Utah who lose top faculty and researchers they’re trying to recruit because of our air quality issues.

I know I’m not the only one who has a story like this: Last year, my next door neighbors, a physician and school teacher with two children, left Salt Lake City largely because they did not want to expose their kids to the effects of our bad air quality.

As you would guess, there is incredibly strong support by Utahns for major changes.

Envision Utah’s recent survey asked residents about their willingness to actively address air quality, and 99 percent of Utahns said they would be willing to “change their behavior to improve our air quality and keep us healthy.”

That response is positive and tells us that residents in Salt Lake City, and throughout the state, are ready to join us as we take on this air quality challenge. But they need their governments to help.

By its very nature, air quality is not a local issue. The dozens of local government boundaries don’t follow airshed boundaries. Addressing air quality means addressing the airshed along the Wasatch Front. Regional, state, private and public actions are necessary.

The irony of this Valley is that the very same mountains that bring us accolades and tourism dollars also form the container that collects and holds our dirty air.

Our mountains are not movable, but we are. Our actions can change. They must.

I think we would all agree we’re at the point where enough is enough.

Today I will offer specific ideas and initiatives for all of us to act on and to lobby for – a legislative agenda for you as residents of Salt Lake City and for us as your elected representatives.

Let me start with Salt Lake City.

Air pollution comes from three primary sources: industry, vehicles, and a wide variety of smaller emitters like buildings, described in the air quality world as “area sources.”

Fifty-seven percent of the particulate matter that contributes to poor air quality comes from mobile sources, primarily our cars and trucks. And most of the particles come out of the tailpipe when we start our vehicles after they have sat dormant for awhile, also known as cold starts.

So minimizing vehicular use is a priority for us as a government and as a city overall.

Here are some of the things Salt Lake City has already done to cut down on gas and diesel vehicle emissions:

  • Converted City fleet vehicles to clean fuels and low/no emission vehicles;
  • Created the Clear the Air Challenge, reducing over seven million (7,253,868) vehicle miles traveled and instituted a neighborhood-based trip-reduction program called Smart Trips;
  • Adopted anti-idling ordinances and education efforts;
  • Partnered with Utah Clean Cities to provide electric car charging stations;
  • Adopted planning and zoning changes to develop walkable and bikable streets and neighborhood centers;
  • Improved building development standards to support solar energy and urban agriculture, which results in less fuel needed for transporting food;
  • Required the new, upcoming taxi fleets, to have low- or no-emission vehicles;
  • Led the effort to open two new rail lines linking the airport via TRAX and Sugar House via the streetcar S Line to downtown and our neighborhoods;
  • More than doubled our bike lanes; and
  • With the leadership of the Downtown Alliance and Ben Bolte, opened the wildly successful SLC Bikeshare program downtown

And Salt Lake City will soon launch the State’s first City-sponsored resident transit pass, giving our City residents unprecedented access to UTA’s rail and bus network at a vastly reduced rate.

With 32 percent of the particulate matter that contributes to our poor air quality coming from “area sources” such as buildings, Salt Lake City has:

  • Built the nation’s first net-zero Public Safety Building;
  • Introduced the City’s first solar farm;
  • Performed energy audits and implemented energy efficiency on all our City buildings;
  • With Utah Clean Energy, instituted a residential solar installation loan program; and
  • Co-located City services near TRAX to help reduce the need for multiple trips

Going forward, the City will continue to find innovative ways to address our air quality.

I will work with the City Council to:

  • Phase out 2-stroke engines in our maintenance equipment; 4-stroke engines are 10 – 30 times cleaner, and electric engines even more so; and
  • Create an incentive program to replace wood-burning stoves

In an airshed study of wintertime air quality in Salt Lake City, researchers determined that the emissions associated with “heating one home with a wood stove is equal to heating over 90,000 homes with natural gas.”

As someone who enjoys a wood-burning fireplace, I have had to make a change in my own home.

We’re all breathing that lovely smelling Juniper-wood smoke, and it’s harmful.

Additionally, Salt Lake City will:

  • Raise our minimum standard for new and renovated municipal building construction to LEED Gold through an executive order, effective immediately;
  • Commence a city-wide program to evaluate the energy use of large commercial buildings, and provide building owners assistance to complete energy efficiency upgrades that will save them energy and money;
  • Develop tailpipe emissions-reduction plans for all of our City Departments; and
  • Build, over the next 5 to 10 years, the most energy efficient airport terminal in the country.

Plans are underway already, and I am very confident we will meet our goal of a net zero Airport in the next decade.

We are always looking for ways to do better.

I invite you to go to the City’s Sustainability Dashboard at to learn more about what is happening and also to give us input. We welcome your ideas and engagement.

As a municipality, Salt Lake City is ready, willing and able to take action. But we can only do so much. We must look to our State government for change that will truly improve air quality.

If, however, the State is unwilling or unable to implement some of the more significant initiatives required, then grant local governments along the Wasatch Front the authority to make the necessary changes.

If necessary, local governments can work together to get it done.

I appreciate the wonderful work by Robert Grow and Envision Utah; they’ve taken their successful grassroots efforts and applied them to air pollution reduction.

And the Wasatch Front Regional Council, under Andrew Gruber’s leadership, has identified a series of actions that will improve air quality.

The Salt Lake Chamber, under Lane Beattie and Ryan Evans, has stepped up to partner with UCAIR and to coordinate business initiatives in Utah.

And I’m thankful to citizen groups like Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Moms for Clean Air, and Breathe Utah for advocating on behalf of improved air quality.

These are all examples of groups working together at the local level to move the dial on a critical issue.


At the state level, we are encouraged by the formation of Governor Herbert’s Clean Air Action Team, an advisory group made up of business, health care, transportation, government and academic leaders.

There’s also the Utah Clean Air Partnership, another advisory group headed by former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson.

And the Legislature’s Economic Development Task Force, a third advisory group, is advising lawmakers. Thank you to Senator Stuart Reid and Representative Brad Wilson for their leadership on that task force, and to Representative Patrice Arent for her focus on this issue.

We look forward to hearing the recommendations of these groups.

But we already know enough today to take meaningful action that will make meaningful improvements in our air quality.

In that spirit, I call on the State to take the following 5 measures, in no particular order, to assist us in our clean air efforts:

1. Allocate more money for public transit.

We have to make it easier for people to use transit as an alternative to driving. If we provide more coverage that runs more frequently and costs less, more people will use transit.

Recent polling and many anecdotes I hear reinforce how difficult it is for most people to use transit. It just takes too long and is too inconvenient.

Utah grossly under-invests in transit compared to many other comparable metropolitan areas.
For example, Denver, Austin, Dallas, San Jose and many other similar sized cities have a full one percent sales tax for transit, which they augment with other public funds. Here in Utah, we have a point-six percent tax, and that’s all.

UTA has a plan to flesh out the bus system, increase frequency and run train and bus service longer so we can go easily to a bus or rail stop and know a bus or train will come in the next 10 minutes. But UTA needs the proceeds from the extra point-four percent in order to implement the plan.

The only way to improve transit service is to better fund it. I urge our State to raise the cap on sales tax for transit. It should be a no-brainer.

And here’s the best part: State lawmakers don’t have to raise any taxes themselves, they can simply authorize local governments to put the issue on the ballot for each jurisdiction to decide for themselves.

Right now, the State restricts that ability for local communities and voters, thereby inhibiting our ability to raise the funds necessary to improve transit service and help our air quality.

The University of Utah, one of the State’s largest employers and our host today, is a fantastic example of how an organization can support transit. The U provides free passes to employees and students and invests in transit service. Consequently, one-third of all trips to the U are on transit.

The U’s model could be standard operating procedure throughout the Valley.

What UTA has right now, though, is only a plan.

So this is our ask: Fund a more practical, useable transit system by raising the sales tax cap for transit. Or, if you are unwilling to do so, let us do it. Give us local control to fund transit. We at the local level can get it done.

2. Make lower sulphur gasoline available.

Tier 3 gasoline, as it is called, has lower levels of sulphur and therefore decreased emissions. It is mandated in other states and should be required for use along the Wasatch Front. Even our Salt Lake County Council of Governments has endorsed the shift to Tier 3.

Our state legislature can make this a reality, so this is our ask: Require the use of low sulphur gas along the Wasatch Front. Or, once again, if you are not willing to do that, let us make that determination locally.

3. Change state law to allow for standards that are relevant to Utah.

Do you know that we have a state law that says our air quality standards here in Utah cannot be stricter than federal standards? Are we really okay with a standard that represents a passing grade for most other cities and states, but still allows us to fail? Since when are we content with federal officials in Washington determining what’s best for the people of Utah?

Our situation is unique; we should be able to tailor whatever approaches work best, regardless of the federal standards. Utah problems need Utah solutions.

This is our ask: Set air quality standards that work for us, not for a generic national condition.

Or, if you cannot, then let us. Give us local control over air quality standards so we can make them fit our local needs.

4. Make the true cost of driving transparent at the pump.

Gas prices directly affect whether people drive their cars more or less.

According to a recent statewide survey, about half of Utahns would reduce vehicle use if gas cost an additional 25 to 75 cents per gallon. And, at an additional $1 per gallon, nearly two-thirds would reduce their vehicle use and find other ways to run errands, get to work and live their lives.

We have a gas tax in this State, but it has not kept up with its dedicated purpose of serving as a user tax for our roads.

In 1997, when I became a member of the Legislature, our gas tax served as a direct user fee; governments used the gas tax to build and repair roads. The gas tax is still used for roads, but today all of the gas tax plus nearly four hundred million dollars from the state’s general fund go to roads each year.

And, Salt Lake City, like many cities across the State, has increasingly relied on non-gas tax revenues to pay for our roads. We subsidize 67 percent of our road budget from our general fund as a city.

Let’s have gas taxes pay for road construction and maintenance, encourage less driving so that our air quality gets demonstrably better and our quality of life improves. We can make this change and still compete pricewise with our neighboring states.

This is our ask: increase the gas tax. Or, if you are unable to do it, let us. We at the local level can get it done, and in fact local governments are united around a proposal for a local option gas tax increase.

5. Require buildings to use power efficiently.

Utah’s energy code standards date back to 2006. Since then, national and international building codes have been upgraded and have been proven to achieve a 30 percent improvement in energy efficiency. Many other jurisdictions across America have done this already.

So this is our ask: Adopt the most current building codes for energy efficiency so we can reduce energy use overall and improve our air quality as soon as possible. And if you cannot or will not, let us do it. We can get it done locally.

We have a narrative in this great State of ours.

We recite – in casual conversation, in political dialogue and even in promotional material – the features that make Utah amazing and make us all so proud to be Utahns; our gorgeous scenery, unparalleled quality of life, family-friendly communities and a resilient workforce favored by companies looking to relocate or expand.

I think we would all agree that right now our unique narrative is in jeopardy. Utah is in jeopardy. Our bad air degrades every one of those special features.

Not only do I love Salt Lake City, but I am proud to be a Utahn. And I am proud to be a former member of the Utah Legislature. And so I say this with deep respect for the work our legislators do, and in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation: To my former colleagues on the Hill, I implore you to take serious action on air quality this year.

But if you cannot, for whatever reason: let us do it locally. Let the communities of the Wasatch Front work together to manage our airshed.

The status quo is hurting us, it’s hurting our families and it will continue to hurt our pocketbooks over time. We cannot pick a few things that are easy to do – but may not make a measurable improvement – and call it good. We need change, and much of the change we need can come ONLY from the authority currently held at the state level.

My five asks are necessary and they would result in real improvements that would complement the Division of Air Quality’s proposed State Implementation Plan, or SIP, that was created in response to the EPA’s mandate for a reduction in particulate matter in our air.

The SIP is a significant step forward for Utah, and I commend the state’s efforts to drill down and embrace a new regulatory approach to pollution sources such as dry cleaners, auto body shops, wood furniture manufacturers and consumer level sources such as personal care products.

While some may complain that the Implementation Plan is difficult, I believe it is long overdue and is the start of a needed change in how we regulate pollution in our airshed.

As with many previous hurdles that we as a city, state or nation have faced, it is not uncommon for laws, regulations and policies that were once considered burdensome to eventually become widely accepted – even appreciated.

Take the Clean Air Act of 1970, for example.

I became quite familiar with the Clean Air Act when it was the topic of my Master’s project and then later when I taught environmental law classes here at the U. When the act was being considered for passage in 1970, automotive industry leaders claimed it would be impossible to require catalytic converters and that doing so would destroy the auto industry.

But Congress adopted the changes, and today our air is cleaner and our health is better.

The EPA estimates that within 20 years after the Act was passed, 18 million child respiratory illnesses, 843,000 asthma attacks and 205,000 premature deaths were prevented. Similarly, for years, industrial companies like Kennecott fought increased air pollution control measures that cost them hundreds of millions of dollars. In the end, the law was upheld and companies complied, and our air quality improved.


I have focused in these remarks on what governments can and should do. That is where my direct responsibility as Mayor resides.

However, we all know that air quality is a topic that each of us in our own personal, work and family arenas can address in order to do our parts to reduce air pollution. We can form new habits. We can plan ahead – by combining our errands to make fewer trips that start from home; walking, biking or taking transit when possible; carpooling with friends; telecommuting; and turning off our engines while we wait for our kids at school.

And we can lobby. Contact your legislators. As a former State Representative myself, I know that legislators pay attention to issues when they hear from lots of people.

We can also use social media to post not only complaints and pictures of the inversion, but ideas and suggestions for our friends.

Industry, businesses, and other organizations can look at ways to reduce trips by vehicles, reduce emissions from stacks and promote community actions. Addressing our air quality challenges will take this entire village, and I’m hoping all of you are ready to help.

Before I close today, I want to drive home the importance of our air quality issue by reminding you how it affects our children.

I’m not sure if all of the adults in this room are aware that bad air days force kids to remain indoors for recess – a lot. Imagine recess being cancelled! I know what I was like in elementary school. I needed to go outside for recess. Or, perhaps more accurately, my teachers needed me to!

If you’re a kid, going outside to play is pretty basic, yet increasingly our kids are forced to stay indoors all day for nearly three months in the winter. Such is the case for a group of fourth grade kids from Whittier Elementary’s ELP program who took public transit to be with us here today.

Under the direction of their teacher Sharon Moore, they wrote a song about air quality during several days of forced indoor recess in December. Their song was uploaded on YouTube and has gone viral in Utah. I know you’ll enjoy hearing it after I conclude.

Finally, I want to close with a reminder from our past.

Believe it or not, back in the ‘60s, it was commonplace for people to toss their trash out the window of a moving car and onto the side of the road. But by the early ‘70s, the anti-littering movement had risen up and developed an ad campaign called “Keep America Beautiful.”

In the most famous ad, you saw a bag of food and trash fly out the window of a passing car and land on the side of the road. And then you saw what I’ll admit was an overly stereotypical Native American man standing there looking at the trash with a tear falling down his face while an announcer’s voice said, “People start pollution, people can stop it.”

The same concept applies right here in Utah today. We have the ability to change our ways so that we can keep Utah beautiful. “People start pollution, people can stop it.”

And we can do it together. I absolutely believe that.

As Wallace Stegner said, “One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”

2 responses to “SLC Mayor Becker Gives “State of the Air” Address

  1. This youtube video (link below), that I created, are suggestions to
    help clean the air, create new Utah jobs and improve everyone’s physical and mental health.

  2. Pingback: Mayor’s Stance Provides A Breath of Fresh Air | sustainableUTAH·

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