UDOT outlines traffic vision for Little Cottonwood Canyon, but critics worry that agency is wearing blinders

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Traffic travels up Little Cottonwood Canyon after a winter storm.

After more than a year of soliciting potential transportation solutions for Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon, state officials’ vision is coming into focus with a dizzying array of options for getting ever-growing numbers to two of the nation’s premier ski destinations.

Some stakeholder groups, however, are already panning how the Utah Department of Transportation is defining the “purpose and need” for its ongoing transportation plan, fearing that it could emphasize parking and road improvements at the expense of transit.

“They are not looking at how we can deliver people to the base of Little and Big Cottonwood canyons without their vehicles,” said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons. “The mobility issues are all caused by the number of cars, and they are not trying to figure out how to have not so many cars. They are looking at how to accommodate those cars.”

On Monday, UDOT released the stated purpose of the plan and its criteria for screening a huge array of alternatives that include gondolas, rail, tolling, something called a SkyTran, buses, “mobility hubs,” and, yes, added asphalt in the form of wider roads and parking lots.

John Thomas, UDOT's lead planner on the project, rejected criticism that the agency is favoring one solution over others.

“It’s premature for anyone to say any alternative has been forwarded,” Thomas said. “We haven’t said what we are or are not going to consider. As we delve into the alternatives this spring, we will screen them against that criteria.”

The public is invited to comment on these documents through Dec. 13.

"We are not promoting more private vehicles. We are trying to find ways to get more people up there in fewer vehicles," Thomas said. "I've said it 100 times before and I'll keep saying it because it represents a shift in our department. There's a recognition that times have changed. Our attitudes are directly aligned with improving quality of life through mobility."

He emphasized that increased mobility in the context of the canyons does not automatically mean adding lanes of traffic as the state is wont do to alleviate gridlock on freeways.

The Little Cottonwood study was initiated pursuant to 2017 legislation providing tens of millions of dollars to address the state’s worst transportation quagmires, with Little Cottonwood, home to Alta and Snowbird ski areas, as the top priority.

The document released Monday indicates the plan’s purpose “is to substantially improve safety, reliability, and mobility on State Road 210 from Fort Union Boulevard through to the town of Alta for all users of SR-210.”

Observers are concerned that the $66 million the state has earmarked for the 10-mile avalanche-prone corridor up Little Cottonwood Canyon will go primarily toward widening the two-lane road, expanding parking and encasing hazardous stretches in snow sheds.

Few if any roads in the United States experience the level of avalanche-control work as SR-210, which leads to frequent winter closures when slide paths are blasted to release their snow loads. Delays can last up to four hours with traffic backed deep into the Sandy neighborhoods at the canyon’s mouth. Little Cottonwood’s avalanche hazard is rated as “very high." Without mitigation, the hazard is off the charts.

Covering the highway with sheds where it crosses several avalanche chutes would allow traffic to move through even when slides are being deliberately triggered or natural releases are imminent.

Key alternatives include building such sheds as well as adding a third lane and widening shoulders, while exploring one-directional traffic flows and other management scenarios that maximize use of limited road surface.

The canyon sees 2.1 million visitors a year, with at least half coming during four winter months. Last winter saw some of the worst traffic anyone could remember when frequent snowstorms ushered skiers into the Cottonwood canyons in search of Utah’s famous powder, yet complicated travel on their narrow roads.

Even though congestion is already reaching a breaking point, visitation is expected to soar as the population of the Wasatch Front gains a projected 1 million residents by 2050, according to the documents released Monday.

Still, many see analyzing Little Cottonwood in isolation as an exercise in futility. Meaningful solutions cannot be developed without also considering Big Cottonwood, the neighboring canyon, with Solitude and Brighton nestled at the top, and transportation systems outside the canyons, according to Fisher and others.

“It fails the Wasatch because it fails to address the most crushing issue, which is how do we have a future where cars are not the predominant mode of accessing the Wasatch,” Fisher said. “If you’re focusing on Wasatch Boulevard and up Little Cottonwood Canyon, that’s not where all the cars are coming from. The cars are coming from downtown Salt Lake. They come from the University [of Utah]. They’re coming from Sandy. They’re coming from the airport.”

Several stakeholder groups are disheartened that UDOT abandoned the Cottonwood Canyons Transportation Action Plan it initiated last year with the Central Wasatch Commission, the new body formed to chart a future for the mountain range that is a pillar for Utah’s outdoor recreation economy.

That plan was intended to put the Little Cottonwood study into that wider regional context, Thomas said, but the process was not yielding any information that added to the surfeit of data produced over the past 30 years.

“Our team is focused on bringing objective data developed in a way that helps people look at these different alternatives,” he said. “No study has been done with the rigor or attention to detail this study is undertaking. Our job is to provide information in a nonbiased way.”

While this planning effort could result in transportation projects in coming years, solutions may be needed sooner, lest Utah’s brand for world-class skiing becomes tainted. After all, what good is the “greatest snow on Earth" if you can’t get to it?