After a year of study, the Utah Department of Transportation says year-round operation of eight mountain highways that now close in winter is not worth the cost — which is what snowmobilers who use the roads when closed hoped to hear.
But the draft study presented Friday to the Utah Transportation Commission keeps the door open a bit to allow year-round operation someday of Guardsman Pass between Park City and Big Cottonwood Canyon — depending on findings of other ongoing studies about Wasatch canyon transportation.
UDOT Deputy Director Shane Marshall said the study also showed that the agency must do a better job of notifying concerned groups about when the highways will open and closed, and under what circumstances.
That comes after UDOT this past winter initially closed Wolf Creek Pass, State Road 35, between Hannah and Francis high in the Uinta Mountains — then reopened it after a few weeks with no new snowstorms after a request by Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, on behalf of area residents.
The reopening stranded some snowmobilers who had camped overnight in the region, and then could not leave in the morning on the newly bare pavement. Others arrived in hopes of snowmobiling or skiing on the road only to find it plowed.
"What we didn’t do is communicate well to all of the stakeholders," Marshall said. "We recognize we need to come up with a good, formal process so that doesn’t happen again."
After the Wolf Creek Pass incident, some snowmobile groups worried aloud that UDOT may have already made up its mind in its study to keep the seasonal roads open all year to please mountain residents and their lawmakers.
But UDOT did the opposite.
Besides Wolf Creek Pass and Guardsman Pass, the other state highway sections that close for winter and were studied are: State Road 39, the Monte Cristo Highway; State Road 65, East Canyon; State Road 92, American Fork Canyon/Alpine Loop; State Road 148, Cedar Breaks; State Road 150 the Mirror Lake Highway; State Road 153, Mount Holly Junction Road.
The study said five had "fatal flaws" that would prevent year-round operation, such as high costs to add special snowplows and maintenance sheds, the need for expensive construction to make the narrow, winding roads safer in winter, or low travel demand. It also said alternative routes were generally available and just as fast.
But it said three roadways — Wolf Creek Pass, Guardsman Pass and East Canyon — offered enough potential benefits that it studied them more in detail, including looking at potential economic impacts and new development that year-round operation could allow.
In the end, the study recommends continuing to close all of them in winter, at least for now.
About Wolf Creek Pass and East Canyon, the study said, "there are no compelling reasons to change direction in how these roadways are managed during the winter."
About Guardsman Pass, it said, "Construction costs needed to bring this roadway up to UDOT design standards are significant. However, there may be alternative, nontraditional operating scenarios ... that would allow for a lower level of investment."
It added that benefits to connect ski resorts in Big Cottonwood Canyon and Park City through Guardsman Pass could make year-round operation desirable. It said other ongoing studies about canyon transportation will evaluate that and other alternatives.
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