A perfect storm: Utah skiers could see even more traffic in Big, Little Cottonwood canyons this winter

Opponents of the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola plan hoped bussing would solve transportation woes, but UTA has cut a main ski route.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fall color in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022.

It could be a perfect storm of more transportation pains for skiers along the Wasatch Front this season.

With winter right around the corner, transportation options are more limited this year and could cost drivers more to access Utah’s slopes.

The Utah Transit Authority’s cancellation of one ski bus route and the scaling back of two others means there are fewer transportation options for winter sports enthusiasts to make the trek into Big and Little Cottonwood canyons — two areas already confounded by congestion.

UTA announced last month it would need to cut certain bus routes and reduce services along certain lines due to a shortage of bus drivers. The cuts scaled back or cut 20 routes in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties.

The UTA announcement came roughly a month after the Utah Department of Transportation decided building a gondola through the 8-mile-long Little Cottonwood Canyon would be the best solution for the area’s transportation needs. A UDOT representative also told the Salt Lake County Council earlier this month that the department is considering a toll on certain days that could cost drivers $25 to $30 per car to drive to the canyon’s ski resorts.

The move to roll back bus routes is especially disappointing for those who oppose the gondola, hoping improved busing would be a way to show a gondola isn’t needed in the picturesque canyon.

The final draft of UDOT’s environmental impact study (EIS) included shorter-term solutions to relieve canyon congestion — including additional buses taking riders to resorts and the building of mobility hubs nearby to get skiers onto buses. The UDOT EIS also called for a widening of Wasatch Boulevard leading up to the canyon.

Ellen Birrell, a Cottonwood Heights City Council member who represents the city’s eastern side where the proposed gondola base station would be built, told The Tribune she supports UTA, but the rollbacks are disheartening.

Birrell, who opposes building a gondola, said her constituents were looking forward to showing how enhanced bus services could limit the need to widen Wasatch Boulevard or build a gondola, but now, that’s changed.

“It’s a real, great concern,” Birrell said. “So in a time when we were very enthused about seeing what could be done with enhanced bus transit, we’re finding that when these changes take effect … that in essence, we’ll be losing one of the bus routes.”

The cuts included the cancellation of Route 953, which starts at the Fort Union station in Midvale and takes skiers and snowboarders to Snowbird and Alta in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Two other routes were halved, moving from a bus every 15 minutes to a bus every 30 minutes. One route is 972, which starts at the same Midvale station as 953, but takes riders to the Big Cottonwood Canyon resorts Brighton and Solitude. The other route, 994, starts at the Historic Sandy UTA station and goes to Snowbird and Alta.

Though ski resorts were hopeful to find solutions before they open, that prospect is likely not an option this year. The rollback on bus services will take effect on Dec. 11.

Dave Fields, general manager at Snowbird, told The Salt Lake Tribune the resort is scrambling to fill the gaps left by the ski buses.

“We’re very concerned about what the traffic and parking situation will look like this winter,” Fields said. “This represents thousands of people getting to and from the resort every day that, now, will need to find an alternative to getting up the canyon.”

Fields said that shortly after the cuts were announced, he and the managers of the three other Cottonwoods resorts met with UTA to figure out a solution. However, the talks didn’t lead to finding a fix to the driver shortage.

Carl Arky, a spokesperson for UTA, said the transit authority is providing vans to the ski resorts to use in order to get staff to and from the resorts. The resorts will be expected to staff the drivers for those vans, and resort patrons will not be allowed to use the vans.

He added that the rollback on UTA ski buses will likely run throughout the ski season, though the transit authority is keeping an eye on the situation.

“We try to be flexible,” Arky said. “But I would think that for the foreseeable future … that these changes will be the ones that will take effect.” He added that it’s not just ski bus routes that have been scaled back, as a total of 20 bus routes have been impacted by the driver shortage.

Roger Bourke, Alta’s town mayor, said he understands UTA has a shortage of drivers all across the state, and knows the cuts aren’t arbitrary.

“I have some sympathy for them,” Bourke told The Tribune. “Because we know that labor shortage is a problem all over the place.” He added, however, that raising wages could help address the issue, though he didn’t know if the transit authority had the ability to do so.

Arky said it typically takes around six to eight weeks to complete the training needed to be a UTA bus driver. UTA now also pays drivers during their training in addition to helping prospective drivers get their commercial driver license, Arky said. He added the bulk of driver vacancies are in the Ogden and Salt Lake markets.

Utah Rep. Suzanne Harrison, who is running for a seat on the Salt Lake County Council, said she supports UDOT’s phased approach to solving the canyon’s traffic woes, but those possible expansions now look to be on hold.

“Reducing bus service right before we’re about to hit some of our peak ski season just is concerning,” Harrison told The Tribune. “We need transportation solutions that make sense and are flexible, and, I think, more responsive bus service up Little Cottonwood Canyon is part of the solution to our congestion issues.”

In the meantime, Fields said Snowbird plans on using the vans provided by UTA in order to get employees on and off the mountain.

For guests, he said the resort is pushing for carpooling, though they’re still researching different options for ridesharing apps. Fields said Snowbird has a rideshare app, but it hasn’t been updated in years, as the resort wasn’t pushing carpooling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We don’t think we have time to rebuild that app for a ski season that starts in a month,” Fields said. “So we’re looking at third-party apps that we can tell people about in the ski community so they can gather up and get rides up and down the canyon.”

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