By Logan Stefanich
SALT LAKE CITY (KSL) – If you’ve ever driven up to Little Cottonwood Canyon on a powder day, or even just a weekend for that matter, chances are you’ve encountered the dreaded and infamous red traffic snake.
Last winter saw a record number of visits for Utah’s 15 ski resorts, with data compiled by Ski Utah showing 5.3 million skier days over the 2020-21 winter. A skier day is defined as a person who skis or snowboards at a resort at any time of the day or night.
But a new group of University of Utah students are pushing back on plans designed to help tackle traffic congestion in the canyon.
In response to unprecedented visitation and increasingly congested traffic, the Utah Department of Transportation is currently evaluating two different options to address the issue: an 8-mile gondola at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon which would take the public to Snowbird or Alta, or a rapid bus system with an expanded route.
The gondola is estimated at $592 million while the bus system is estimated at $510 million.
“When I first heard about the gondola I thought it was a joke,” said Mallory Philliber, a member of Students for the Wasatch, a student group at the University of Utah interested in UDOT transportation proposals for Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The group was launched in November after Emily Pitsch, a graduate student in biochemistry at U., heard about the UDOT proposals and was put in touch with other interested students. Pitsch serves as co-chair of Students for the Wasatch alongside Claudia Wiese, an undergraduate biology student at U.
“I really like the canyon and I think it’s beautiful and very important to our quality of life here in the valley, and it’s also part of our watershed, so I think it needs to be protected to the best of my ability. our abilities,” Pitsch mentioned.
The alternate transportation options chosen by state transportation officials are intended to reduce the number of vehicles on State Road 210. The highway is only expected to become more congested over the next several decades.
Such alternative transportation plans are needed, UDOT officials say, because projections show use of the canyon will increase by 45 percent over the next 30 years. If so, they estimate a travel time of 80 to 85 minutes by 2050. Some of the nearby roads that lead to the mouth of the canyon would end up having miles of lines as motorists attempt to ascend the canyon .
This would not only create headaches for motorists, but also pose safety concerns.
Student Concerns Wasatch students hosted an event at the State Capitol last week where they raised concerns about the proposals and advocated for a common sense approach to improving transportation in the canyon as well as the use of electric buses.
“Either the gondola or the road expansion both have a price tag of $600 million in taxpayer dollars and they would really only serve Little Cottonwood Canyon, so only the private companies of Snowbird and Alta. We don’t like the idea of using taxpayers’ money to subsidize these private companies,” Philliber said.
Philliber and Pitsch also expressed concerns about Little Cottonwood Canyon’s status as a watershed area, pointing out that large-scale construction projects in the canyon could compromise drinking water quality throughout the valley.
Currently, more than 60% of the water used by residents of the Salt Lake Valley comes from the canyons of the Wasatch Mountains, according to the US Forest Service.
“Runoff from construction machinery like oils and pollutants and things associated with port-a-potties as well as rock blasting – all of that is going to lead to debris in our Little Cottonwood Creek that runs to the bottom of the canyon where it is purified to be drunk,” Pitsch said.
Additionally, the student group is also concerned that the transportation proposals will only address traffic congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon, while there is an equally daunting traffic problem in Big Cottonwood Canyon, where the ski areas are located. of Solitude and Brighton.
“You can’t really separate the two canyons because of how close they are, so I think that’s a bit too short-sighted,” Pitsch said.
In addition to only tackling a single canyon, Pitsch and Philliber said the gondola proposal would specifically address only one use — vacationers — on what is a multi-use national forest.
“It will only stop at ski resorts,” Pitsch said of the gondola.
“I ski, I climb, but I think it would be really cool if we had better access for everyone to experience these canyons,” Philliber added. “Buses could stop at trailheads rather than ski resorts. I think that would be awesome.
Simple solutions to a complex problem? Wasatch students describe the proposals as “short-sighted” and argue that there is already a viable system in place to solve traffic jams in the Cottonwood Canyons – public transit. They think it is enough to invest in it and expand it.
Nor should this expansion include the literal widening of the road to Little Cottonwood Canyon, according to Pitsch.
“We think it’s unnecessary. Jumping right into creating this four-lane highway through our beautiful canyon is kind of ridiculous, especially considering it’s going to cost half a billion dollars,” Pitsch said.
Wasatch students are opposed to the proposal for a rapid bus system with a widened route due to similar concerns they have about the proposed gondola plan which they believe would negatively impact the scenery throughout the canyon and could potentially cause environmental issues with construction.
“The widened road is definitely not something I want to see in the canyon (and) it’s also problematic with the construction,” Pitsch said.
Pitsch said the Utah Transit Authority’s ski bus system, which transports skiers and riders to Snowbird, Alta, Brighton and Solitude, has already laid the groundwork for a potential solution to the canyon’s traffic problems.
“The biggest limiting factor in getting people on the ski bus is that there aren’t enough parking spaces at the park and ride lots,” Pitsch said. “I think we should start with easy solutions. … We need more parking capacity.
Those solutions, Pitsch said, include identifying places in the Salt Lake Valley for people to park on weekends and be able to access the ski bus. She also spoke of the need for more buses — preferably electric, to combat the Valley’s air quality issues — to make it easier for people to access public transit.
“As taxpayers and water drinkers and not just skiers and climbers, we would really like to see an approach to this issue that encompasses more public transport – having park-and-rides all over the valley so people, no matter where you live and whether you have a car or not, you could access the canyon,” Philliber said.
Along with expanding and investing in public transit, Pitsch said he also needs to be incentivized, perhaps adding tolls for cars heading into the canyon after a while or preventing single-passenger vehicles ride up the canyon to encourage carpooling for those who do. choose to drive.
Philliber discussed having more bus stops outside hotels to provide tourists with easy access to the ski bus, as well as bus stops at campuses like the University of Utah, Westminster and the Salt Lake Community College to provide students from across the Valley with more easily accessible routes. the skiing that many have come to Salt Lake City for.
“I would like to see improvements to the current bus system, which is quite simple by simply increasing the number of buses, having direct routes to ski resorts and providing more parking spaces for people to get on. the (ski) buses,” Pitsch said. .
Philliber said investing in public transit would also provide a more “immediate” solution to the problem, rather than waiting for construction to be completed for the gondola or the widened road.
“We have a traffic problem, we need solutions yesterday. Having (an) improved bus system would just solve the problem immediately rather than having to wait as long as the construction period would take,” Philliber said.
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