Utah Senate president pushes for toll road in Little Cottonwood Canyon

‘It is over capacity,’ says Wayne Niederhauser, who sees tolls as cost-effective way to reduce congestion.<br>

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Traffic was brisk in Little Cottonwood Canyon Friday Feb. 5 after an overnight storm dropped some snow at the resorts. Phase 2 of the Mountain Accord process is being launched. It's emphasis will be to deal with existing traffic problems in the two Cottonwood canyons

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser says Little Cottonwood Canyon is so congested that it’s time to consider charging a toll to drive there.

He’s written SB71 to help make that easier to do with electronic transponders, including using cameras to monitor tollways, with automatic mailed citations for unpaid tolls. Vehicle registration holds would be used on scofflaws.

The bill may allow Utah to have more toll roads statewide, “but my purpose for the bill is Little Cottonwood Canyon,” Niederhauser said Wednesday.

“Right now it is over capacity. You have cars parking all over the place. It can’t handle any more vehicles,” said the Sandy Republican, who represents the general area.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Senate President Wayne L. Niederhauser speaks after Senate Floor Time at the Utah State Capitol Friday March 10, 2017.

Niederhauser said a toll road may also eventually be considered for nearby Big Cottonwood Canyon. “It doesn’t have the same congestion problems. But as our population grows, it is going to have the same problem.”

Niederhauser sees tolls as one of many tools to help reduce congestion, including pushing more bus service, and perhaps letting carpools escape tolls or pay reduced rates for them (which he says emerging technology may allow).

Ski resorts in Little Cottonwood Canyon have told him they are generally supportive of the idea, he said.

Ski Utah spokesman Paul Marshall said, “We continue to work with many agencies to find the best possible outcomes to deal with congestion. Whether that is a toll or other options is up in the air.”

Niederhauser said toll roads are more feasible than a proposal by some to build railways up the canyons to solve congestion. “Because of the cost of rail, that just wasn’t going to be a possibility” as far as he’s concerned, he said.

“If we’re going to spend transit dollars, are we going to build transit over the mountain or in the valleys? If you have priorities, where you are going to get the biggest bang for the dollar probably isn’t mountain rail — at least at this point,” he said.

The Utah Department of Transportation is conducting an environmental study about how to reduce canyon congestion, and Niederhauser said his bill may give it an additional tool.

Niederhauser adds that more toll roads could help the state as it struggles with declining gasoline tax revenue in part because alternative-fuel and electric vehicles escape it.

“We’re going to have to look at different ways to pay for our roads, and tolling is probably going to be part of that,” he said.

Tolls are now charged by electronic transponder in Utah to allow single-driver cars to use carpool lanes on Interstate 15. The state has only one other toll road, the private half-mile long Adams Avenue Parkway connecting U.S. 89 and Interstate 84 in Washington Terrace.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Car pool lanes on Interstate 15 that allow single-driver cars to pay a toll via electronic transponder.

Carl Fisher, executive director of the Save Our Canyons conservation group, said, “Tolling in the Cottonwoods can be a good idea, but it’s not a silver bullet in and of itself.”

He says it should be coupled with expanded bus service in the canyons, including offering it year-round and not just during the ski season.

Fisher adds that studies show the average number of passengers per car in the canyons “is just a little bit over one,” so he favors creating incentives for carpooling.