Utah ski bus: UTA to reduce winter service again, citing staff shortages

Ski resort workers are encouraged to “vanpool” to work.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers and snowboarders line up for a ski bus along Wasatch Boulevard near Big Cottonwood Canyon on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. Ski bus service will be reduced again this year, according to UTA.

The Utah Transit Authority plans to reduce winter ski bus service for the second straight year because of ongoing staff shortages.

UTA’s annual ski bus service begins in December, though the exact date has not yet been specified, and runs through April. This year’s service will operate nearly the same as last year’s — featuring fewer routes and fewer trips — but officials are hopeful new measures will mitigate some service gaps.

The continued reduction in service is no secret to Salt Lake County ski resorts. UTA started collaborating with them in April, UTA planning director Russ Fox said in a board meeting last month. “So they’ve known for quite some time where our status is going to be as far as just operating the same service from last year.”

‘Vanpools’ for resort employees

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A van leaves the Wildcat base at Alta Ski Area, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022.

To make more room for skiers and snowboarders on this year’s limited ski buses, UTA plans to provide alternative transportation for ski resort employees — “vanpools,” in vans loaned out to resorts, driven by resort workers.

UTA provided a similar service last year, but the four Cottonwood Canyon resorts are still ironing out the details of this season’s arrangement, UTA spokesperson Carl Arky said in an email.

Last year, Solitude leased 10 passenger vans from UTA to leave more parking available for guests, Solitude Ski Resort spokesperson Travis Holland said in an email. The resort has participated in the UTA vanpool program since the 2019-2020 ski season.

John Adams, a veteran ski patroller at Solitude, rode a UTA van to work all last winter.

Employees had to take extensive online classes to be certified to drive the vans, Adams said. His group of about 13-15 ski patrollers had three or four sign up to become drivers. Those drivers would take their van home each night — then drive to the group’s meeting spot each morning before carpooling up the canyon.

Before UTA’s vanpool option, ski patrollers organized a few informal carpools, or drove up alone, Adams said. Solitude’s vanpool lease from UTA covers gas, maintenance, and insurance for the vehicles — and Solitude paid the employees who drove them an additional $5-$10 per day last year.

Employees who rode the UTA vanpool or carpooled on their own were also eligible for meal vouchers, Adams said.

“It’s kind of hard for some departments — like ski school could go up and have absolutely no work, and want to go home, and they could be stuck if they come up on the van,” Adams said. “For people that have scheduled times, that are punching in and clocking out, that worked OK.”

Although the vanpools cut down on traffic, it has created other issues, Adams said.

“We literally had to take our shuttle up an hour before we had to be at work some days — just so we knew we could get up the canyon on time,” Adams said, which would leave the patrollers at work early, unable to clock in yet with nothing to do.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A long line of cars forms near Little Cottonwood Canyon during a snowstorm on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

That’s because, though resort lifts don’t typically begin turning until about 8 or 9 a.m. each winter, many skiers drive up around 6:30 or 7:30 a.m. to beat traffic, get a parking spot and hang out until resorts opens up — which can cause congestion for employees trying to get to work, and risk them running late, Adams said.

On a day with no avalanche mitigation planned, ski patrollers might head up in the vanpool as early as 6:30 a.m. But if avalanche mitigation was planned, Adams’ van would leave as early as 5:15 a.m.

“Some mornings, openings are even delayed because employees aren’t able to get up there,” Adams said. “So it’s great to do a van or bus. But they need to prioritize employees getting up the canyon.”

Holland, with Solitude, said in an email that the resort is “looking for ways to provide transportation for employees beyond this vanpool program.” He added that further details will be announced this fall.

2023-2024 ski service

UTA is working with Salt Lake County and Visit Salt Lake on a shuttle service for hotel guests near the Cottonwood Canyons, since that’s where the loss of UTA ski bus route 953 has been felt the most, Fox said.

Ski bus service will also continue to run on UTA’s 40-foot Gillig buses, which have 20% more space than buses used before last year’s ski season, UTA has said.

In terms of staff shortages, UTA says it is making progress — as of Aug. 24, the agency had 101 open operator positions out of 864 total openings, and had net increases in its operators over the past six months. But the authority was also losing operators in the previous six months.

“We’re on the right path, but it is a slow path,” regional general manager Andreas Colman said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A UTA ski bus at the Big Cottonwood Canyon park-and-ride lot on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019.

“Our turnover as an agency is around 10 operators a month just due to retirements. And so we need to hire that, and then above that, in order to have those net increases,” Colman continued.

Although the agency had a 50% reduction in trips during Salt Lake County’s 2022-2023 ski service, they only experienced a 14% reduction in ridership, an official noted last month.

UTA hopes to bring more frequent ski bus service back in the 2024-25 season, but before then, the authority would have to increase its frequency of service for Routes 39, 218 and 201 for Salt Lake Valley commuters.

This year’s ski bus routes will include the following:

Weber County:

-Route 674 from Ogden to Powder Mountain. Last year, service on this route was restructured to run more midday and fewer peak-time trips.

-Route 675 from Ogden to Snowbasin. Last year, service on this route was restructured to run more midday and fewer peak-time trips.

Davis County:

-Route 677 from Layton to Snowbasin. Last year, service on this route was restructured to run more midday and fewer peak-time trips.

Salt Lake County:

-Route 972 from Midvale Fort Union Station to Solitude/Brighton. Service is reduced from 15-minute service to 30-minute service for the second straight season.

-Route 994 from Sandy to Snowbird/Alta. Service is reduced from 15-minute service to 30-minute service for the second straight season.

-Route 902, from 3900 South and Wasatch Boulevard to the Kimball Junction Transit Center in Park City, was discontinued on Aug. 20. However, High Valley Transit will now provide free service from Salt Lake City to Kimball Junction on Route 107. More information can be found on High Valley Transit’s website.

-Route 953, from Midvale Fort Union Station to Snowbird/Alta, is suspended for the second straight season.

Utah County:

-Route 880 from Orem to Sundance. This route was added last year and offered service Monday through Saturday.

For more information on UTA ski bus service, visit UTA’s website.

Correction • Sept. 26, 9:45 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct typical ski lift start times in winter.