When I moved to Boise I rented a room at the foothills home of Gary Richardson and Diane Ronayne for a month.
Every morning I would have espresso and listen to Gary’s often critical commentary as he read the Idaho Statesman and watched the smog roll into Ada County with the traffic from Canyon County. It was 1996 and Richardson was running what appeared to be a quixotic campaign for Ada County Highway District Commissioner.
Richardson, a former Idaho Public Television producer was the spokesman then for the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. He rode his bike to work every day and advocated making the road system more bike friendly.
His campaign theme was “Moving people.” His platform was that Ada County didn’t just need more roads to handle the huge growth of the mid-1990s, it needed a sophisticated transportation and land use planning effort.
In between tart jabs at the Statesman headlines and reporting, Richardson talked about the changes he had seen through the wide picture windows with Boise’s skyline in the foreground. He had come to Boise in the 1970s from California, one of the early escapees from the Golden State who found sanctuary in Idaho.
The most visible change was the smog. State environmental authorities had just briefed me and said the old problem, larger particles like dust called pm10, was largely controlled when the city developed its wood-burning ordinance. But a new pollutant, pm 2.5 or soot, which were much smaller particles caused mostly by auto exhaust would present a challenge to regulators.
That’s not the whole story, Richardson said to me then. He could see the problem was ozone, a product of the photochemical reaction when sunlight hits chemicals from auto exhaust and other sources.
Richardson amazingly won a seat on the highway commission but his message was ahead of his time and the powers of the valley went to the Legislature to change the commission's districts to muzzle his voice and get him defeated. Today, many of the same people are calling for the same kind of actions he sought then.
It would be five more years before the Treasure Valley began dealing with ozone, the pollutant that is in such high concentrations now that we are near a violation of federal standards. But in that time Ada County actually came back into compliance with air quality standards for carbon monoxide.
The driving force was new anti-pollution devices on cars and the emissions testing that ensured they were running clean.
Later that year I wrote my first major feature story on air quality in the Treasure Valley. The gist of the story was the same as most of the dozens of stories I written since: The main pollution problem is not industry, it’s us and our cars.
The major solution is getting us to take fewer trips. There are a lot more of us today than there was in 1996 – about 150,000 more in Ada and Canyon counties – so that alone adds up to more trips.
The only effective, long term approach is through wise transportation planning, which encourages growth near existing transportation corridors and expansion of public transit options, experts have repeatedly told me. We need to be able and work and shop near our homes, even able to walk when possible.
It not only will keep our air clean but reduce congestion, protect open space and save taxpayer money for roads and other services.
That was the same message Richardson gave me in 1996 along with this warning:
“What we do now will affect us for at least 20 years,” He said.
That was the year they began widening Eagle Road from two lanes.