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The evidence is shocking when viewed from the Salt Lake Valley's canyons: A brown stew of stagnant air swallowing clean air and stealing views like a suffocating shroud.

That gunky blanket, seen especially during steamy summer months and winter inversions, is nearly as visible from the valley floor.

And it has persuaded Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker to fight back. He wants to outlaw vehicle idling (beyond two minutes) as a means to cleanse the air. His proposed "idle-free" ordinance, which carves out exemptions for defrosting, extreme temperatures, emergency vehicles and work trucks — while carrying a fine of up to $160 for a second offense — gets its first airing Tuesday before the City Council.

"It's good policy for our city," Becker says. "There are people that move away from this community because of the air quality. And there are businesses that don't move here because of the air quality."

If the ordinance passes, Salt Lake City would become the first major Utah city to adopt idling penalties, joining the ranks of metro areas such as New York City, Philadelphia and Austin, Texas. Park City also mandates drivers kill their engines instead of prolonged idling. But most other idle-free measures in Utah are symbolic and nonbinding.

Becker's proposal has earned praise from most online commenters — along with clean-air groups — though a handful of residents panned it as impossible-to-enforce, "feel good" liberalism.

"I am thrilled," Salt Lake City resident and asthma sufferer Natasha Seegert writes on the Open City Hall online forum. "I would like to both see the mountains surrounding our valley and breathe clean air."

"I know it's cold in the winter here and I know I'm guilty of idling my car in the winter months to warm it up before I head off to work," resident Liz Sorensen writes. "I'm sure this will help motivate me to bundle up a little extra and spare myself the (albeit small) cost in gas and the (albeit large) cost in air quality."

"We love this valley and our lungs. This is great," adds Holladay's Juliette Sutherland.

Others are far from on-board. They argue restricting idling with fines turns the city into a "mini police state."

"Interesting how liberal-thinking government[s] always manage to push some 'feel good' ordinance down the throats of the citizenry with threats and coercion," writes capital resident Bill Cockayne. "Way to go Becker: forcible trash cans, forcible non-idling, forcible bike lanes, more spending, more punishment. Gee, what's the next inane thing on your mind?"

"Who is actually going to be targeted with this rule?" wonders Salt Lake City's B.W. Bullough. "Mothers picking up their children after school this winter as they try and keep warm?"

Becker concedes the Wasatch Front's air-quality problems cannot be curbed overnight or by regulations on emissions alone. But he argues every bit helps and says other mayors are showing interest.

"A lot of it is just getting it in your mind, that when you're not driving anywhere, to turn the key."

After all, Canada's Department of Natural Resources reports that motorists would save more gas and spew fewer emissions by shutting off and then restarting their vehicles than by letting them idle — even for as little as 11 seconds.

Becker stresses that he doesn't want to trample personal liberties, but insists the idling rules are reasonable. "I'm not a believer in having the government be heavy-handed," the mayor says. "But when it's a matter of public safety and health, it's counterbalanced. We all breathe the air."

To craft the measure, the city consulted FedEx, UPS and the Utah Transit Authority, all of which employ anti-idling policies. Officials also huddled with the business community, according to mayoral aide Bianca Shreeve, who predicts costs and revenues from an idle-free law would be "a wash."

"We're realistic about it," Shreeve says. "A lot of it will be complaint-based or if our enforcement officers are actually witnessing it when they are out and about."

Before any crackdown could commence, there would be a six-month grace period to post signs and educate drivers about the change. Existing idle-free signs, mostly at the airport, could be modified to read "it's the law." First offenders would be issued a warning. A second violation would cost $160 ($50 if paid within 10 days), while a third infraction could pack a $210 fine.

Exemptions are spelled out for the health and safety of passengers, meaning idling would be OK to run heaters or air conditioners when temperatures fall below 32 degrees or top 90 degrees. Exceptions also would apply for window defrosting, waiting at stoplights, airport-support vehicles, police and installation and maintenance trucks. Buses and shuttles also would get a break — up to 10 minutes — if they are actively loading or unloading passengers.

"It's a really big ask of people," Councilman J.T. Martin says. "Today, I'm not ready to pull the trigger on this. But at the same time, we're in a tough spot. We need to make some tough decisions."

Council Chairwoman Jill Remington Love argues the policy would affect economics as well as the environment. "The number-one issue in relocating businesses here is air pollution," Love says. "I would be really surprised if the council didn't embrace this."

What's next?

The Salt Lake City Council is expected to debate Mayor Ralph Becker's proposed idle-free ordinance Tuesday. A public hearing and vote could come next month. Sounding off on exhaust

"Absolutely the stupidest idea I have ever heard. If you want to save the whales or hug some trees, do it on your own time and on your own dime. Never in my lifetime (47 years in Salt Lake City) have I seen a local elected official with such unbridled arrogance and delusions of grandeur."

Hugh Johnson

Salt Lake City

"Everyone in Salt Lake City that likes breathing and who doesn't want to get cardiovascular disease, supports this ordinance. Motor vehicles are not entitled to equal protection under the law, in case anyone was wondering."

Kimberly Deneris

Salt Lake City

"There has to be a limit to government. There has to be. This ordinance crosses that line."

Jessica Steed

Salt Lake City

"The air here is hideous."

Susan Passino

Salt Lake City

"Pass this ordinance and I will never drive into Salt Lake City again. While everyone else is trying to encourage business in the city, it is obvious that you are not. Foolish."

Stephen Roberts


"I fully agree with the ordinance and support it. I am a pediatrician who cares for many children with asthma. When the air gets bad in the valley, we see many children in the office and hospital with breathing problems. I am also a mother who takes her kids to school — pickup and drop-off can be done with the engine off or far less than two minutes of idling."

Ellie Brownstein

Salt Lake City

"Seems like a waste of city resources to even take it this far. Is this what our city's job is? To set ordinances for every aspect of our lives? Watching too much TV is bad, too, is Salt Lake City going to limit the amount of TV we can watch?"

Brad Bartholomew

Salt Lake City

"I am always bothered by the noise and smell from idling vehicles at bus stops, school pickup zones, etc. I understand that some people feel they have the right to waste gasoline and emits fumes if they want to, and they think that this sort of ordinance is an imposition on their lives. To those people, I'd like to point out that it is one of the jobs of government — to protect people's health."

Daniel Horns


Source: Open City Hall online forum