Ski bus ridership is up 48% since UTA increased canyon runs by ending direct service from downtown Salt Lake City

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) A UTA ski bus comes down Big Cottonwood Canyon after dropping off skiers at the resorts in 2016.

The Utah Transit Authority says its decision two years ago to cancel direct ski bus service from downtown Salt Lake City — which upset hotels — helped increase ridership by 48% in Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons. That’s because the change allowed UTA to offer more frequent service in the canyons.

Boardings are up from 217,088 before the change to 320,633 this ski season — an increase of more than 100,000.

“It put our dollars where we get the biggest bang for our buck,” Lorin Simpson, UTA’s Salt Lake regional general manager, told the agency’s board this week.

Before the change, UTA had eight different ski bus routes to the canyons from around the Salt Lake Valley, including a long route from downtown Salt Lake City.

“With our limited resources, we were maxed-out in what we could provide. And on peak ski days, our buses were packed,” Simpson said. “We needed more trips up and down the canyon.”

So UTA cut its eight ski bus routes to three. By shortening routes from distant points, it allowed running buses in the canyon more often — at 15-minute intervals at peak times and every 30 minutes at others.

“We increased the number of trips by nearly 30 percent” up and down the canyons, Simpson said.

He said the increased ridership vindicates the change.

“It made it difficult for some in the outer areas to easily access ski service, but it did produce a significant increase in ridership. So we believe it was a good result given the limited resources,” he said.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A UTA Ski bus heads down Big Cottonwood Canyon, March 13, 2017.

The three current ski bus routes each serve a TRAX station — the Midvale Fort Union, Bingham Junction and Historic Sandy stations. That was designed to allow people, including those from downtown, to use TRAX or other buses to transfer to ski buses.

But Simpson said most people picking up ski buses at those TRAX stations are either parking cars there or are using kiss-and-ride options for drop-off.

While some skiers and snowboarders do use TRAX, he concedes it is difficult to travel with gear on transit options not designed specifically to handle it.

Having a good snow year also helped pump up ridership, Simpson acknowledged.

The first season after the change, snow was good and ridership increased 26%. The next year snow was light and ridership was essentially flat, dipping a bit. Still, Simpson said holding on to the previous increase was a victory. This season with heavy snow, ridership was up 23%.

UTA Chairman Carlton Christensen said officials from cities often urge him to add even more buses to help relieve congestion in the canyons — so he asked Simpson if it is possible, and whether more buses could help.

“Our buses are fully utilized. They are packed. If we had additional resources, we could provide more service during the winter and summer,” Simpson said.

But he added UTA needs to do more than just add buses. He said buses now get stuck in traffic, and have difficult times entering packed roads — and simply adding buses would also mire them in that problem.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Ski Traffic was brisk at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon Friday Feb. 5, 2016 after an overnight storm dropped some snow at the resorts.

Ongoing studies are looking at possible solutions that include adding a bus-only lane up the canyons, adding traffic signals that bus drivers could switch to allow them to enter roads or such things as avalanche sheds that may decrease halting traffic for controlled avalanches.

“The solution also has to include better priority for the buses so they can get in and out of park and ride lots more quickly and have prioritization,” Simpson said.