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Getting Up The Mountain: Stakeholders Divided Over Transportation Plans For Little Cottonwood Canyon

A photo of cars parked on the side of the road at Albion Basin.
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Proposals to address traffic on Little Cottonwood Road, or S.R. 210, mostly cater to cars heading to the Alta and Snowbird ski resorts, as they make up the largest share of drivers.

As state and local officials narrow in on plans to address traffic congestion in one of Utah’s key routes to ski resorts — Little Cottonwood Canyon — stakeholders have lined up behind their preference of the three proposals on the table.

The options include increasing bus service, widening the road on top of increasing bus service or bypassing the road altogether via gondola. And while an option won’t be chosen until Spring 2021 — after the Utah Department of Transportation analyzes the potential environmental and economic impacts of each option — no clear frontrunner has emerged.

In general, ski resorts and their partners tend to favor the gondola, while rock climbers and backcountry skiing groups want better bus service. And some, such as the preservation group Save Our Canyons, don’t like any of the choices.

Brian Brown, communications manager for Snowbird, said given population growth estimates over the next 30 years, the gondola seems like the best plan for moving a lot of people up the mountain efficiently.

“Any solution that involves cars or busses, for that matter, we don't think would stand the test of time because there's just a finite amount of space in that canyon,” Brown said.

Also, he said, the gondola could run all day and avoid avalanche impacts on the road.

But for professional ski mountaineer and environmental activist Caroline Gleich, increased bus service is a better route because it wouldn’t require major construction in the canyon and could be done quickly.

Plus, because the gondola would only have two stops — at Snowbird and Alta — anyone who isn’t heading to a resort will be left out.

“For dispersed recreationalists, for hikers in the summer, for backcountry skiers or people who don't have enough money to go to the ski resorts, the gondola wouldn't provide any transportation benefit for them,” Gleich said.

But she said for any transit system to be truly effective, it needs to extend beyond Little Cottonwood, connecting people to Park City, Big Cottonwood and throughout the Salt Lake Valley.

There is, however, a more comprehensive plan in the works — the Mountain Transportation System (MTS). Launched earlier this year and spearheaded by the Central Wasatch Commission, it’s a separate process from the Little Cottonwood Environmental Impact Statement, but aims to develop a more efficient and sustainable transit network throughout the Wasatch Front and Back.

After an initial public comment period in February, which provided a broad sense of the goals and attributes people wanted to see in the plan, organizers are launching a second phase Friday to dive into the specifics of which transportation modes should be considered.

“We want the best project to rise to the top, and it will probably be a combination of the various modes,” said Chris Robinson, a Summit County councilmember and chair of the Central Wasatch Commission. “In other words, you're not going to build a gondola everywhere. You're going to have busses, and even with a train, you still may have gondola connections and busses.”

The challenge is, the MTS doesn’t have the same legal or financial backing as the LCC EIS, which must go through a federal environmental review process, and isn’t guaranteed to be adopted. At this point, it’s more of an exercise to determine what a comprehensive transit framelike could look like, which Robinson said will hopefully guide what happens in Little Cottonwood.

“The worst thing would be if we get going down a course with what the Utah Department of Transportation does in Little Cottonwood Canyon, that makes it impossible to do what the consensus bigger picture might look like,” he said.

Robinson said the goal is to settle on a MTS framework by November.

UDOT said it is continuing to refine its LCC proposals, including considering some alternatives proposed during the last public comment period in July. It expects to release a revised report this fall.

Corrected: September 18, 2020 at 8:35 AM MDT
A previous version of this story misnamed the conservation group Save Our Canyons.
Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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