Solitude gets jeers and cheers for its paid-parking plan, but either way the Utah ski resort will be going it alone this winter

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Skiers and cars pack Brighton Resort in 2017.

Solitude is hardly Utah’s most famous ski resort, but this week it certainly is the most talked after announcing parking fees for its wintertime guests who drive to the Big Cottonwood Canyon destination.

General Manager Kim Mayhew quietly developed the plan — which includes subsidies for those who take the bus to Solitude and cheaper parking rates for those who carpool — as a way to reduce emissions and the congestion clogging the central Wasatch Mountains’ ski country.

None of the other three Cottonwood resorts plans to charge for parking at this time, although those managers intend to closely watch how skiers respond to Solitude’s initiative.

Neighboring Brighton Resort sits just up the road.

“We don’t feel that it’s going to cause people to skip Solitude and park at Brighton and try to ski back down to Solitude or anything like that,” Brighton marketing director Jared Winkler said Wednesday. “We’re going to watch and see how it does, see how the perception happens from it. If [paid parking] is something that starts working for them, I’m sure we can make it work for us.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) The parking lot was packed at Brighton Ski Resort, Saturday Dec. 21, 2013.

Here’s what officials will be looking for this winter: How many more skiers will take Utah Transit Authority buses to Solitude than in previous years? How many will carpool? How many will just pay to park? How many will bypass Solitude altogether and simply ski at Brighton, Alta or Snowbird? And will there be a noticeable difference in congestion on powder days?

Answers to those and other questions could guide all four Cottonwood ski areas’ future plans for addressing the gridlock that has made it hard to get to, much less enjoy the Greatest Snow on Earth, especially on snowy weekends.

Since the Solitude story first broke Tuesday morning, online comments have come fast and, sometimes, furious. Many were not kind to the resort, calling its move a “bait and switch” that adds $150 (the price offered to season pass holders for a season parking pass) onto the cost of a package bought months ago.

Salt Lake City skier Kimberly Kraan said the experiment is “destined to fail” and could wind up exasperating skiers without producing many benefits. Her comment argued that Solitude’s plan should have been coordinated with UTA, which provides ski-season bus service up Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.

“Parking congestion will just increase at the mouth of the canyon as those conscientiousness folks pursue taking a bus,” she wrote. “If UTA does not increase bus services, however, there will still be long lines, and delays, just to get a seat.”

Others said paid parking is long overdue since it puts a price on driving in the canyons.

“Area residents driving their cars to the ski resorts have always been a problem,” wrote one commenter. “But UTA is going to need to come up with some parking agreements for lots near the mouths of the canyons if they’re ever going to get more people on the ski bus.”

In an interview Monday, Mayhew emphasized that Solitude’s new program will not make money — noting the subsidies the resort will offer to transit riders — but it will make the roads less congested and the air a little cleaner by encouraging skiers to leave their vehicles out of the canyon.

The resort also will pledge a yet-to-be-determined percentage of the revenue to Breathe Utah, and the resort’s parking-system vendor will match the donation.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Snowboarders walk through a packed parking lot at Solitude Resort in Salt Lake City, Monday, Feb. 15, 2016.

This ski season, Solitude will charge skiers $20 to park if their car has one or two occupants. The fee goes down to $10 for three occupants and $5 for four or more.

Solitude season pass holders also get to ride UTA’s ski buses for free in the canyons, ordinarily a $9 round-trip fare. This benefit extends to Ikon pass holders, who get to ski for up to seven days at each of the other three Cottonwood resorts.

For its part, UTA "will do everything we can to support them," said agency spokesman Carl Arky. "There may be some tweaks we will have to look at to better serve Solitude."

UTA uses up to 38 28-seat buses running on 15-minute schedules to serve the canyons during ski season. The ride between 6200 South and Wasatch Boulevard and the ski resorts can take nearly an hour when traffic is flowing smoothly and up to three hours when the canyons are choked with traffic.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo Ski traffic was brisk at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon on this day.

Arky observes that increased transit ridership would alleviate gridlock since each bus can eliminate 10 to 25 cars from the canyons with every trip.

Solitude’s new policy marks the first time visitors will be asked to pay for the convenience of driving into either of the Cottonwood canyons, although numerous fee proposals have been developed in recent years.

Lawmakers authorized the Utah Department of Transportation to toll the canyon roads, but such a levy has yet to be officially proposed.

The U.S. Forest Service proposed a recreation fee for people parking at developed sites in the canyons, but the idea got quashed soon after the change in presidential administrations in 2017. The Cottonwoods are Utah’s busiest public lands for recreation — outside of Zion National Park — seeing more than 4 million visitors a year.

Ski industry backers and conservation activists praised Solitude officials for “sticking their neck out” with a risky move that could go a long way toward decluttering canyon roads.

“Big problems require bold solutions. People would love to have everything not change and ski neck-deep powder and park next to the lift,” said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah and the state’s top ski industry marketer. “But at the rate Utah is growing, we need to look at new ways to do business.”

Of the four Cottonwood resorts, Solitude’s existing parking best lends itself to controlling access and collecting fees, Rafferty said.

“I’ve got to believe it’s going to be worth it,” he said. “The whole goal is to increase that vehicle occupancy rate from 1.4 to 2.4. If we could do that, it also improves air quality; it helps on the climate issue.”

Solitude’s main 1,200-space lot — with plans for 200 more spaces — is a lagoon with a single access point connecting it to the highway. By contrast, Brighton’s lot abuts the loop road for several hundred feet with several private residences nearby.

At the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Alta’s parking is intertwined with the town of Alta. Snowbird skiers park in several lots, accessed by four resort entries.

Snowbird operators are not ready to abandon free parking, although they implemented other ways to reduce traffic, according to resort spokesman Brian Brown.

“We support Solitude’s efforts,” Brown said, “and encourage skiers to utilize UTA."

Last winter, Snowbird debuted a ride-sharing app that has proved successful at getting skiers into one another’s cars. Solitude and Brighton are embracing the app and expect to have versions ready this season. Skiers who use the app to share rides to both resorts can accrue reward points redeemable for prizes or discount lift tickets.

"The most important thing is to do your part to reduce the number of vehicles in the canyon. Our plan from day one was to have something in it for doing the right thing," Brown said. "The app created thousands of carpool trips. The parking team noticed an immediate increase in carpooling."

For its part, Brighton requires single-occupancy vehicles to park in its overflow parking, saving preferred parking for those with three or more occupants, according to Winkler.

This winter, Brighton, which provides night skiing until 9 p.m., will offer a new type of pass that allows guests to ski for a certain amount of time.

“We’ve changed our ticket structure from being a day or night [pass] to a seven-hour or four-hour ticket,” Winkler said. “When somebody comes up, they have the option to not have to get there at 9 [a.m.] to be able to ski as long as they can.”

This way, skier arrivals will be spread out over the day and, hopefully, lighten the traffic load at peak times.