Americans’ reliance on personal automobiles poses a paradox that plays out most acutely in places like Utah’s Big and Little Cottonwood canyons — rugged, scenic and natural settings that have become powerful magnets of recreation and drivers of economic development.
The Cottonwoods are now plagued with traffic year-round but particularly on powdery winter days, when thousands of skiers stream up the canyons in hopes of being first on the chairlifts. But anyone with eyes has been seeing a crisis coming for years.
“This issue has been upon us for decades and decades. ... Forty years ago, we were looking at the same issues with the same potential solutions as we are today,” Central Wasatch Commission Executive Director Ralph Becker said at a Wednesday night forum at Salt Lake City’s downtown library.
The difference now is the canyons are in crisis, yet planners are no closer to implementing systemic solutions.
“This isn’t new, but I think we passed the tipping point to where everybody understands this,” said Becker, a former Salt Lake City mayor and state lawmaker. “We’ve got to do something differently.”
The Salt Lake Tribune hosted Wednesday’s forum, attended by more than 200 people, to explore potential solutions to gridlock in the two canyons, which see more visitation than Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks combined.
Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce moderated the discussion that included Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, and Dave Fields, president and general manager of Snowbird, the famed ski area near the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Solutions discussed were all over the map but putting a price on driving topped the list.
Solitude Mountain Resort’s experiment with paid parking, tiered to the number of occupants in the car, is already showing huge promise, according to Fields, despite the controversy it has stirred.
Nearly two-thirds of the cars parking at Solitude have three or more occupants, evidence that a $20 parking fee (for a vehicle with one or two occupants) is getting Solitude skiers to avoid driving up Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Fields said Snowbird is considering replicating its rival’s parking program, though probably not next season.
That remark prompted Fisher to ask why the resort would wait to make the switch. If measures are helping to reduce the congestion problem, he reasoned, they should be implemented right away.
"I will just say we're the problem. Gas is too cheap, our cars are too comfortable. We're driving alone way too much," Fields said. "It's fascinating to see what things like Solitude's program are doing as far as impacting ridership and it has other impacts as well."
On weekend days in Little Cottonwood, by contrast, up to 40% of the cars carry a single occupant, according to Fields.
"That is failing," he said.
Meanwhile, bus ridership is up 35% to 40% over this time last year, largely in response to enhanced service by Utah Transit Authority. Bus frequency was upped this winter to 15 minutes and the times and season of operation were extended.
The Utah Department of Transportation is putting together a plan for Little Cottonwood Canyon, examining numerous high-cost options, such as road improvements, a gondola, rail and avalanche sheds that would cover the highway under three key slide areas.
The Central Wasatch Commission recently initiated a parallel planning effort spanning the entire region. People may submit their thoughts and suggestions through March 1.
Forum participants agreed the road expansions are not an answer and could even worsen conditions for the canyons.
Fields noted that 5,000 vehicles are in Little Cottonwood on a busy day, and up to 7,000 on peak days.
"I don't think that's good for air quality. I don't think it's realistic given the steepness of the road and the amount it snows," Fields said. "That just doesn't make a lot of sense that our solution is to keep driving."
He likes the idea of an aerial transit system, such as a gondola that could move up to 5,000 people an hour up the canyon. While costly, a gondola could safely operate even as winds are howling and avalanches tumble down the canyon walls. Gondolas could eliminate most vehicular traffic to the ski areas.
However, on a year-round basis, Fisher noted, about 70% of canyon visitation is in dispersed sites, such as White Pine in Little Cottonwood and Butler and Mineral forks in Big Cottonwood, that would not be well served by gondolas.
Fisher insists on a buses-first approach, especially if bus traffic is prioritized over private vehicles on congested days. Enhanced bus service would not cost much to implement and would not require expanding the canyons’ transportation footprint.
“We haven’t even scratched the surface of what we can do with buses. Why would we leap to some other option that has trade-offs without just testing a simple hypothesis with infrastructure that we have that’s pretty low cost?” Fisher said. “I bet with $10 million to $15 million, we could have a pretty amazing bus system rocking in the next year up and down those canyons, as opposed to the analysis that it would take to build gondolas.”
He argues canyon bus service should be better integrated with transit in the Salt Lake Valley, where people live. Otherwise, buses would just push the parking problem from the canyon heads to the canyon mouths, the location of some of Utah’s most expensive residential real estate.
Becker and Fisher wondered if Cottonwood Heights and Sandy residents would put up with a couple of massive concrete parking structures, each capable of storing 5,000 cars.
“We’ve got to be thinking both broadly and innovatively about how do we tie it to transit systems, maybe improving existing transit systems, whether it’s a bus or something else, so that we don’t just create monstrosities of parking garages,” Becker said, “that maybe 20 years from now we go, ‘So why did we spend several hundred million dollars on parking garages when that wasn’t the right approach?’”