Gehrke: Here’s why adding a lane to Little Cottonwood is an idea worth studying

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon near Snowbird, Thursday April 19, 2018.

When my son flew home from a trip to visit his grandparents last weekend, he met a guy who was coming to Salt Lake City so he could get one more day of skiing in at Snowbird.

Since it’s June, he shouldn’t have too many headaches getting up and down the canyon. The same obviously isn’t true in, say, January.

On a busy powder weekend, as many as 21,000 people a day are trying to cram themselves into the narrow canyon. Most drive, snarling traffic and clogging parking.

It is a problem and the state knows it.

Robert Gehrke

In the past 30 years, there have been at least 16 major studies of how to manage traffic and congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Really the biggest change over that time is that now there is a lot more traffic and congestion to study.

But in all of those previous studies, there was an option that was pretty much ruled out: Widening the road.

If you’ve spent much time in Little Cottonwood, you get there are practical reasons for that. Especially in some narrow sections adding even another dozen feet of blacktop would be a huge undertaking and harmful to the canyon.

More importantly, it would be counterproductive to what has been an overarching objective — to get people out of their cars and onto other transit options.

But now the Utah Department of Transportation is seriously looking at adding a third lane to the winding canyon road.

It looks like a terrible idea. We can’t pave our way out of this problem. But there’s a twist that could make it worth considering.

John Thomas, UDOT’s project manager for the Little Cottonwood environmental study, said that possible third lane may be reserved for buses and shuttles during the winter months. Right now, buses move about 700 skiers each day in winter months. This study, looking out to 2050, envisions moving as many as 5,000 skiers up and down the canyon.

Those bus passengers would be able to park in two large structures that will be built at the mouths of Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons and are expected to hold between 5,000 and 8,000 cars.

In the summer months, when there is no transit, the extra lane would be dedicated for people riding bikes.

“Our goal is to reduce the number of vehicles in the canyon and get people in higher occupancy vehicles,” Thomas said.

For most of the length of the existing road, from the mouth to the top of the canyon, the area is wide enough to go to three lanes, Thomas said, but there are stretches that would be problematic. Trying to figure out how to work around that obstacle will be part of the study.

There is another piece that I’ll be watching with some concern. UDOT is considering expanding parking at three trailheads — Bridge, Lisa Falls and White Pine.

Save Our Canyons Executive Director Carl Fisher worries that adding parking will draw more cars, worsening the problem.

“With decades of plans citing visitation as the No. 1 impact on the Wasatch … will UDOT embrace transit and active management of visitors?” he asks. “Or double down on accommodating more cars, converting more open spaces and irreplaceable natural features into a concrete jungle that has already gobbled up lands right up to the wilderness boundaries?”

That aside, there’s another way this UDOT transportation study could be different from those of the past — there’s some money behind it.

The Legislature has allocated $66 million to UDOT to implement whatever course of action it decides on. “They didn’t say what to do, they just said, ‘Try to do something to improve travel and the recreation experience,’ ” Thomas said. “The opportunity is huge.”

Later this year, UDOT also expects to finish a study of charging tolls to single-passenger cars headed up the canyon, which could go a long way toward cutting down on traffic. Currently, 37% of the cars that go up the canyon have just the driver.

To get from 500 people taking buses to 5,000, “there has to be a behavior change and we need incentives to make that change,” Thomas said. “Tolling helps us make that behavior change. … It’s part two of transit.”

The canyon study is in its early stages. Until the end of this week, UDOT — working with the U.S. Forest Service and Utah Transit Authority — is taking public comment on the scope of the environmental study. (Visit udot.utah.gov/littlecottonwoodeis/ for more information and to provide your input).

By next year, UDOT will refine the options and put together a draft, with the final proposal for canyon transportation due in early 2021.

But, Fisher said, now is the time for the public to weigh in and help steer the direction of the study.

“The team cannot analyze what it doesn’t know,” he said. “If something isn’t brought up now, there’s no chance to bring it up later. How our Wasatch canyons, and specifically Little Cottonwood, will look in the next 50 years will be directed through UDOT’s process whether you comment or not.”

Little Cottonwood already sees about 2.1 million visitors per year. With Salt Lake County’s population to grow by nearly 40% by 2050, the strain on our canyons will only become more acute.

We need to prepare for it now, which is why this kind of long-term planning is crucial and — as three decades of reports have shown — the solutions have to be put into action. Most importantly, we have to get it right, and that takes input from all of us who care about our canyons’ future.