Adam Looney: Overcrowded canyons can take a toll

User fees can control traffic woes in Salt Lake canyons.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Unified Police Department officers held up canyon traffic for a hour and a half as avalanche mitigation efforts were underway at Carter Fork, Mineral Slab and Rock House areas of Big Cottonwood Canyon, Feb 16, 2021.

In case you needed any further evidence that overcrowding and congestion in Salt Lake City’s canyons isn’t going to solve itself, consider Snowbird Resort’s new “Fast Tracks” program, which allows purchasers to cut ahead of other ticket holders when their lift lines get too long. They have taken the problem of overcrowding and turned it into a profit opportunity.

Keep that in mind when you’re considering the expensive new proposals to increase access and reduce traffic in the Canyons, like the $400 million taxpayer-financed gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon or $500 million to add additional traffic lanes. While these proposals might speed travelers into the canyon, they do not solve the fundamental problem of overcrowding once travelers get to the top.

It is no wonder that Snowbird and other resorts are pushing these plans. More travelers in the canyons mean more crowded trails and slopes, longer lines for you and me, but more profits for them. And Utah residents would pay for it twice: first through our taxes and a second time at the ticket office.

Instead of new infrastructure subsidies that ultimately benefit private businesses in the canyons without solving the basic problem, the right approach to overcrowding and congestion is to impose user fees — tolls or congestion charges — during peak periods.

The fees should reflect residency — the fact that local users pay taxes to maintain the infrastructure. They should vary based on demand and occupancy, so they are implemented rarely, only when congestion and overcrowding is likely. And they should be revenue neutral, reducing dollar for dollar taxes Utahns would otherwise pay to maintain public roads.

Utah already implements a seamless occupancy and demand-driven toll system on Route 15. Millcreek Canyon requires a $5 fee for visitors, which reduces congestion and helps fund maintenance in the canyon. UDOT has already identified several practical methods of open road tolling, which collect tolls without requiring vehicles to stop. During certain hours on weekends, holidays, powder days or other peak days in foliage season, drivers would pay a modest toll. Public transportation would be excluded, carpools could get a discount, as could Utah residents.

While we all dread the idea of raising the costs on travelers into the canyons, the reality is that we are already paying for it every minute we are struggling to find parking at a resort or a trailhead. We are paying for it in taxes every time UDOT plows SR 190 or SR 210 or bombs an avalanche path. And we are paying for it at the destination resorts in new parking fees, higher ticket prices, or new “Fast Track” programs designed to monetize overcrowding.

Ask yourself, is it better to pay these costs in parking fees and ticket prices to the owners of a resort, or instead to the state in return for lower taxes?

There are real benefits to reducing overcrowding and congestion in the canyons: environmental benefits from less pollution and improved air quality; more solitude on the trails and slopes; less wear and tear on hard-to-maintain infrastructure; and less time wasted idling in traffic, circling parking lots, or standing in line. Those benefits, however, won’t emerge from costly new infrastructure projects whose primary effect is to inject more people into the top of the canyons.

Canyon resorts do not have an incentive solve this problem themselves; if it were not so crowded people wouldn’t be willing to pay quite so much to cut the line or park closer to the lift. Tolling the canyons is the only solution that solves the overcrowding problem at the lowest cost to Utah residents.

Adam Looney

Adam Looney is executive director of the Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis at the David Eccles School of Business, University of Utah. Opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the University of Utah.