UTA expands ski bus service, gets praise from resorts and environmentalists

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) UTA and Central Wasatch Commission members gather at the Big Cottonwood Canyon park and ride lot on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, as the snow flies to remind residents about improvements to ski buses that will begin service on Nov. 29.

Big Cottonwood Canyon • Outside in a blizzard, groups that sometimes butt heads — environmentalists, ski resorts and the Utah Transit Authority — all hailed Monday what they see as a key step to protect the Wasatch canyons and reduce congestion: extra ski buses.

“This is an important first step,” said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons. “And while it isn’t a silver bullet, it demonstrates that when we work together, we can get things done.”

As sort of a Black Friday special for skiers, UTA on Friday will launch more frequent service in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon — with the Central Wasatch Commission paying $60,000, matched by $90,000 extra from the transit agency. Meanwhile, ski resorts are taking steps with higher parking fees and rewards for carpools also to reduce traffic.

The extra bus service will increase the number of trips on Route 972 in Big Cottonwood Canyon to 79 each day, up from between 61 and 65 on various days now. UTA plans to do that with its existing bus fleet by eliminating service at the Bingham Junction TRAX stop to shorten the route and allow running more buses elsewhere.

It also plans to increase trips on Route 953 in Little Cottonwood Canyon to 35 a day, up from between 17 and 23 now on various days. Route 994 in that canyon will not add trips.

UTA is also planning perhaps a controversial step: eliminating bus stops at a crowded park and ride stop at the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon, where buses sometimes become trapped for long periods by bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway.

UTA Chairman Carlton Christensen said skipping that stop and asking bus users to park instead at a lot at 9400 South and 2000 East will make service faster and more reliable and leave the canyon lot for carpooling.

UTA also plans to eliminate interior ski racks in buses to increase passenger capacity and will ask passengers simply to hold their skis.

“We’re excited to improve ski bus service to our riders this season with bus trips, more seat space and faster travel times,” Christensen said.

Fisher with Save Our Canyons praised the extra service as “a solution that doesn’t require building anything more in our watersheds. ... It signals an investment in changing behaviors, a transition from moving cars to moving people.”

Chris Adams, president of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, said his group “views buses as the way to really solve some of the transportation issues that we're facing. We get to leverage existing infrastructure rather than building new systems like a train or aerials.”

Chris McCandless, chairman of the Central Wasatch Commission, the group created by the Mountain Accord signed by cities to protect the canyons and improve transportation, said adding extra buses is relatively quick and inexpensive.

“The solution to the canyon transportation problems that we see today is not more cars, it's more capabilities to be able to resolve the transportation issues through mass transit,” he said.

Nathan Rafferty, president and CEO of Ski Utah, said canyon resorts are taking additional steps to help reduce congestion.

Most offer prime parking and other perks for people who carpool. He praised Solitude for announcing it will charge for parking this season, up to $20 for noncarpoolers. Big problems require big and bold solutions, and I really applaud Solitude for making this step,” he said.

Other steps, he said, include Brighton offering a half-day pass for afternoons and not just mornings, allowing some skiers to stagger arrival and departure times to reduce peak-time congestion.