Here’s when Big and Little Cottonwood canyons will get expanded buses and tolling

The Utah Legislature set aside $150 million to beef up bus services and create tolling, but it could take years to see results.

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

After a year of record snowfall, days of skiing lost to avalanches and, of course, the dreaded snake of cars lining mountain roads, those looking to recreate in the Cottonwood canyons may soon see expanded bus services and tolling — additions aimed at tackling the canyons’ traffic issues.

But the services won’t be put in place overnight, or even in the coming months.

In March, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed SB2, an appropriations bill that allocated $150 million to address transportation woes in the canyons. The bill says the money is for “enhanced bus service, tolling, a mobility hub, and resort bus stops for Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons.”

The money, which would be available in July as part of the state’s new fiscal year, is a big deal for the canyons. In just the past few months there have been cutbacks in bus routes due to staff shortages, shifting bus stops, new private buses and local officials voicing concern over long-standing gridlock.

However, the funds won’t be spent right away, according to Josh Van Jura, project manager for the Utah Department of Transportation.

He told The Salt Lake Tribune the state funds will only be accessed once UDOT issues its record of decision on the ongoing environmental impact study (EIS) on addressing Little Cottonwood Canyon’s transportation issues. In August, a UDOT study recommended that an eight-mile-long gondola be built through the canyon.

“The record of decision will need to be complete before we could implement any of those items that are listed in SB2,” said Van Jura, who oversees the EIS. The record of decision, which would formally conclude the EIS, will likely be finalized this summer.

Once it’s done, Van Jura said UDOT can get the ball rolling on expanding bus services. But that could take up to two years to complete, meaning the improvements wouldn’t be in place until roughly the 2025-2026 ski season.

“We’d have to go out and buy additional buses, and we anticipate — from putting out the procurement through delivery and testing — is roughly two years,” Van Jura said. “That is approximately the same two years that it would take to advertise, design and build a mobility hub.”

Brad Rutledge, a co-founder of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, said he was excited to see the state investing in the canyons’ transportation.

“We’re hopeful that this will make a big difference,” he said. “Having more buses and staffing adequately through funding for the enhanced bus service program will have a really dramatic, positive impact.”

“The ski bus service has been really frustrating to a lot of people,” Rutledge told The Tribune.

It’s been so frustrating this year, the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance started its own ski shuttle programs in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. He added the group is planning to continue the shuttles next season.

SB2 included tolling as a way the money can be spent, but the expanded bus service would need to be in place when tolling would begin.

“This is access to public lands, and we really want to make sure that there’s still a way for people that can’t afford the toll to access these public lands,” Van Jura said.

According to Van Jura, UDOT is not looking to implement tolling at the mouth of the canyons as of now. Tolling would also likely be automated.

“We anticipate that the toll would only apply to canyon visitors who are going to Snowbird or Alta,” Van Jura said. “So visitors above the White Pine trailhead, and White Pine would not be included.”

Carl Fisher, executive director of the conservation group Save Our Canyons, said the SB2 funds are a great start, but he still has some reservations. For example, he said he hopes the money can be used to address issues like overcrowding at trailheads during the summer.

“I would say it’s mostly good, but we are concerned that the primary focus for this money is on the resorts and not on the canyons, not on the average user that’s accessing these canyons every day of the year, not just during ski season,” Fisher told The Tribune.

He added that tolling could be an incentive for people to take public transit, which would contribute to the ultimate goal of reducing the number of cars on canyon roads.

Van Jura said the language in SB2 limits UDOT to spending the money on existing forms of public transit, and the funds would not be able to be used to build the controversial gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon.

He said $150 million is roughly the amount it would take to make the expanded bus service, tolling, mobility hub, and resort bus stops a reality — meaning he doesn’t anticipate any money will be left over.

The total cost of the proposed gondola is roughly $550 million in taxpayer money, though its price tag will likely go up. State officials will also need to secure numerous land deals in order to begin construction on the gondola, including at least one deal with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns land where a proposed gondola tower would be built.