SALT LAKE CITY -- Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker issued a "Clean Air Challenge" Friday, asking Utahns to car pool, commute by bike and avoid engine idling to help combat the state's pollution problems.
Herbert and Becker, who spoke at the Utah State Capitol, were joined by other mayors from across the Wasatch Front, which is home to 2.2 million people, or 80 percent of the state's residents.
As the governor spoke on the steps of the Capitol, he pointed out the blurred-view of the mountains in the distance. Every year the Salt Lake Valley suffers through winter inversions, which trap pollution in low-lying areas, and air quality officials estimate about one-third of the pollution comes from cars and trucks.
"We're gonna throw down the gauntlet and challenge people to do more when it comes to improving our air quality," Herbert said.
The challenge follows efforts by Becker and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, who together launched an "idle-free" campaign in 2008 asking parents to turn off car engines when picking up their kids at school.
Between Nov. 1 and March 1, the state issues daily reports on the region's air quality. Already this season, about 20 "red" days, the most severe ranking, have been called for Salt Lake County. That's more than the previous two years combined and the third-most in the last decade, according to state records.
As part of the "Clean Air Challenge" the Utah Transit Authority will offer free rides on Feb. 12 to urge motorists to get out of their cars and onto buses. Salt Lake City employees already receive free transit passes.
UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter told The Associated Press that the "Learn to Ride" day will cost the transit organization roughly $100,000. At a time of cutbacks, Carpenter said air quality was an important enough issue to support and it might yield some benefits later.
"By having a learn to ride day, we're hoping that people who have never tried it before will become regular riders," Carpenter said. "So if that's the case, any operational costs will be made up throughout the remainder of the year."
AIRNow, a national index for reporting daily air quality, recently ranked portions of Utah as having the most polluted air in the country.
Haze is common in northern Utah as winter inversions trap polluted air in the bowl-shaped valley floors.
Brian Moench of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment called the initiative a "step in the right direction," but said it doesn't go far enough. If larger actions aren't taken, "in another 10 years none of us will be able to breathe," Moench said.
Moench suggested as one idea that the speed limit be lowered to 55 mph to cut down on fuel use.
Kathy Van Dame, policy coordinator for Wasatch Clean Air Coalition, is pleased that somebody got the ball rolling.
Still, Van Dame said, it's a long-term problem needing a long-term solution.
"There isn't a silver bullet," Van Dame said. "We need silver buckshot."