Wharton: What about that ski Interconnect idea?

By Tom Wharton

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: August 16, 2012 11:07AM
Updated: November 30, 2012 11:30PM
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Tom Wharton

Ski Utah president Nate Rafferty keeps a Utah Atlas close at hand. When he travels from the Wasatch Front to other parts of the state, he tries to find a little different route, occasionally involving dirt roads or two-lane highways.

That makes getting there half the fun.

He would like skiers coming to Salt Lake and Park City resorts to say that same. And unfortunately, getting to and from the resorts and finding a place to park on a busy holiday or weekend often detracts from an otherwise enjoyable experience.

Rafferty says at times the experience compares to seeing a concert at the USANA Amphitheater in West Valley City. You know you are going to have a great experience once you get inside, but battling traffic before and after might discourage you from attending.

So, when it comes to the seven ski resorts closest to the Salt Lake urban center — Deer Valley, Park City, The Canyons, Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude — what transportation system makes the most sense to move the largest number of people in the fewest cars?

Rafferty argues that using over-the-snow lifts, trams or gondolas to connect these resorts, which are located in close proximity to one another, should be looked at closely as a way to help solve that problem. Resort owners who like this idea call it Interconnect.

Count me as an Interconnect skeptic. I worry that even the addition of a minimum of three lifts needed to make the connection amounts to massive resort expansion in canyons that already contain too much development. Is it a net gain to the quality of the experience to bring more people to the sensitive Cottonwood Canyons? What are the ramifications for watershed protection and the backcountry experience?

That said, Rafferty is a good guy who is sincere in his beliefs that a lift system that would allow an intermediate level skier to start the day at Park City, have lunch at Snowbird and return a different way to Park City would not only be a good marketing tool for Utah resorts but also could actually reduce the number of cars in the canyons.

Rafferty talked about taking a trip to Europe. He flew into Zurich and never got into a car for a 10-day vacation experience that involved trains, buses, mountain bikes and ferries, all connected.

He envisions a similar situation in Utah, where a visitor could take light rail from Salt Lake International Airport and then use a bus, light rail, cog railway system, train or aerial tram system to reach the ski areas. Then, using lifts, a skier could explore all seven resorts in a week-long stay without stepping into a car.

Under his vision, Park City and its three mega resorts and lodging complexes, would absorb much of the overnight crowds, though there would certainly be room for some overnight guests in the Cottonwood Canyons.

Part of the Interconnect challenge is that the seven resorts are all separately owned. Trying to develop a pass allowing skiers to utilize all the resorts — or even two or three in a single day — while keeping the price low enough to make it viable for consumers and profitable for the resorts is complicated.

Again, Rafferty turns to Europe as an example. He said there is an area in Italy that includes 400 chairlifts with 150 different owners that are all connected. Skiers purchase a card with a computer chip in it that is scanned each time they use a lift. It is prepaid on a cost-per-run basis and can be recharged during the day or when on vacation.

“I think we can have Interconnect, preserve the watershed and preserve backcountry skiing,” he said. “But everyone must give a little.”

As a skeptic, I still think there are some major issues to be resolved. However, if resort owners are serious about a long-term Interconnect proposal, the best way to start would be to put a solid plan on the ground and pay for an environmental impact statement on the whole idea, not just one lift at a time.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter@tribtomwharton