Changes coming to Cottonwood canyons as they win biggest share of $100 million jackpot to reduce traffic congestion

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A misty afternoon near Storm Mountain in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Friday May 11, 2018.

After a fierce statewide battle for $100 million that the Legislature pegged to reduce traffic congestion at crowded recreational areas, Little and Big Cottonwood canyons won the lion’s share of the jackpot Friday.

The Utah Transportation Commission voted to give them $66 million of the total, or $2 of every $3 available.

Other smaller winners were Zion National Park, $15 million; Moab, $10 million; and Bear Lake, $8.3 million.

Areas that had lobbied hard for funding but finished out of the running include American Fork Canyon, Logan Canyon, Ogden Canyon, Powder Mountain, scenic State Road 12 near Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Lake Powell, Brian Head and Joe’s Valley Reservoir.

Last year, the Legislature decided to borrow $1 billion through bonds to accelerate highway projects statewide.

It set aside $100 million of that for projects that have a “significant economic impact associated with recreation and tourism” and would help remedy significant congestion. Lawmakers assigned the transportation commission to decide where to spend it — and local government officials from around the state lobbied for slices.

The commission last year narrowed the list to the four areas that eventually received money. But the previous action was tentative, and the Utah Department of Transportation spent much of the past year evaluating whether they indeed were the best areas to spend money, and how to properly divide the $100 million.

Cottonwood canyons

The Cottonwood canyons came out as the big winners.

“There’s a variety of things we’re looking at there” in an ongoing environmental impact study about how to reduce congestion, said Shane Marshall, deputy director of UDOT. He said most efforts are focused on Little Cottonwood, although the department is also looking at needs in Big Cottonwood.

Options range from creating toll roads to adding roadway and signal improvements, building new parking structures and expanding public transit.

“The biggest concern in everyone’s mind is, ‘How do we keep the number of people going up there to enjoy the recreational opportunities, but reduce the number of cars?’” Marshall said.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Park and Ride lot at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon was nearly full Friday, Feb. 5, after an overnight storm dropped some snow at the resorts. Phase 2 of the Mountain Accord process is being launched. Its emphasis will be to deal with existing traffic problems in the two Cottonwood canyons.

Congestion is so bad, especially in Little Cottonwood Canyon, that traffic often does not move, backs up down the canyon and clogs nearby valley roads.

“Tolling will be looked at as a mechanism to reduce the number of cars” possibly to encourage more car pooling, he said. “A parking structure is on the table. There’s nowhere to park once you get up there.”

Marshall added, “It’s not one solution. It’s not just tolling. It’s not just transit. It’s a collection of things.”

The ongoing study is working to identify solutions with the public and the Transit District of Utah (formerly known as the Utah Transit Authority). “We think we’ll have a pretty good idea of what the alternatives might be at the end of this year.”

UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras said the $66 million will not fund all needs in the canyons, only a portion — and studies will decide what has the highest priority.

Also on Friday, the commission formally ordered a separate $500,000 study funded by the Legislature this year to accelerate planning and design for a new parking structure near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon as a transfer point to buses.

Shuttles from St. George to Zion

The $15 million set aside for the Zion National Park area is mainly for new shuttle buses between the park and St. George to reduce often severe traffic congestion caused by 4.5 million visitors a year.

“The community got together with us, and we did about a $100,000 study to look at alternatives down there,” Marshall said. “The one that kept rising to the forefront was a transit solution from St. George all the way to Zion.”

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune A shuttle bus leaves the Zion Canyon Village just outside Zion National Park near Springdale, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013.

He said many details remain to be worked out.

The commission penciled in $8 million to buy equipment and facilities, and $7 million toward 10 years of operation and maintenance. Marshall said local governments are looking at contributing to the project and working out its details.

A more walkable Moab

The $10 million going to Moab — near Arches and Canyonlands national parks — is designed mostly to improve parking and make Moab itself more walkable.

That includes $7.3 million for a downtown parking structure and $2.7 million for other surface parking lots scattered throughout the town.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) On Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, there was a minimum 15-minute wait time for vehicles waiting for entrance to Arches National Park.

With the improved parking, “People can come in, park their car and then walk through the community,” Marshall said, “and make Main Street a little more walkable than it is now.”

Moab now suffers heavy congestion similar to urban areas, and it is growing. “There’s not an offseason anymore in Moab,” Marshall said.

Bear Lake

The $8.3 million the commission approved for Bear Lake will go to four projects.

They include $5 million to relocate the marina entrance, as part of a marina expansion project; $1 million to widen State Road 30 at the lake; $700,000 to improve Logan Road and Bear Lake Boulevard; and $1.6 million to extend the Buttercup Lane bypass road.

The Bear Lake Marina is a popular and busy place during the summer months. Tribune file photo. (Nate Nickerson Photo).

Marshall said it will also make a variety of signal and intersection improvements.

Bear Lake sometimes gets overloaded with traffic, Marshall said. “There are weekends you would think you are in Little Cottonwood Canyon.”