Gehrke: The time has come to toll cars driving up the Cottonwood canyons

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

If you’re planning on hitting the slopes in Little Cottonwood Canyon this weekend, it’s probably best to just get in your car and head up there now.

That’s the only way to avoid the absurd traffic that snarls Big and Little Cottonwood every weekend during peak season.

As Utahns, we love these canyons for the hiking, skiing and snowshoeing, not to mention just admiring the scenery or finding a respite from the unbreathable air. But as anyone who has tried to get into the mountains recently can attest, the congestion is untenable and getting worse.

That’s why the time has come to charge a toll to use the canyons, and a bill by Senate President Wayne Niederhauser — who lives at the mouth of the canyon — would make it easier to do just that.

Niederhauser’s bill, it should be pointed out, would not require or even allow a toll to be collected in any canyon. It would allow the Utah Department of Transportation to use license plate scanning technology, which would make it easier to collect a toll on any state road. But it so happens that the department is currently studying transportation issues in Little Cottonwood, so that is where the discussion is focused.

The thing is, you have to actually be able to get to those places to enjoy them, and idling in miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic isn’t enjoyable for anyone. An estimated 4 million visitors per year use the canyons, and the numbers will only increase as the state’s population climbs.

Tolls have worked to limit congestion and generate additional revenue in Mill Creek and American Fork canyons and, if done right, could be a huge benefit for Little and Big Cottonwood.

Most obviously, the tolls would encourage people to carpool or use transit. That could alleviate not just traffic but also parking shortages. Fewer idling cars would also help reduce air pollution.

The tolls should be charged on a sliding scale based on volume of traffic — something the license plate readers can easily do. A University of Utah study last year created a conceptual fee structure for Big Cottonwood Canyon tolls that ranged from free admission, when traffic is light, to as much as $12.50 (which I think is probably too high) at peak times, when 800 or more cars an hour are entering the canyon.

The U. study projected the tolls would generate $3.6 million each year, which could pay for additional bus lines that would be needed to accommodate the increased transit demand, with $2 million still left over.

Part of that money should be earmarked for working with Salt Lake County and the U.S. Forest Service on improvement projects — toilets, trails, campsites and so forth — that have been put off because of tight budgets and were already inadequate to handle the numbers of visitors.

And the public would generally support handing over some cash to enjoy the canyons. A survey conducted by Utah State University as part of the Mountain Accord canyon planning process found that, on average, the public was willing to pay $48 a year for parking or access in the Cottonwoods.

I get there are legitimate concerns. These canyons are, after all, practically a Utah birthright, and enjoying the splendor shouldn’t be reserved to those who can afford it. But nothing of value is free (the same goes for journalism, but we’ll have the Trib paywall discussion another day. Please subscribe!), and if it’s done right, tolls could help save these vital resources before we love them to death.