Terry Heinrich: There are better ways to reduce Little Cottonwood Canyon traffic

Instead of an expensive gondola, just cut down on single-occupancy cars.

(Suzanne Paylor | The Salt Lake Tribune) Motorists have trouble driving in Little Cottonwood Canyon during a storm on Friday, November 29, 2019.

We have seen the return of traffic congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Amplified by heavy snowfall, a root cause is UTA’s failure to plan for and hire drivers to run buses at last year’s level. As a result skiers have taken to private vehicles.

Residing just off Utah highway 210, I have observed skier traffic over the years. This last holiday week I monitored traffic over two days. The result: 51% of the vehicles had only a single occupant and 48% had just two occupants. With such low occupancy it is understandable why cars back up on the highway and Snowbird’s parking lot is full by 10 a.m.

Decreasing the number of cars is a critical part of a better answer to LCC congestion than a billion-dollar gondola. We need to think of common-sense solutions. We can reduce the number of cars on the road if we increase vehicle occupancy through ride-sharing incentives such as variable occupancy-based tolling and/or resorts going all in on paid reserved parking. Adding enforcement of canyon traction laws (4WD/tire chains) will further move more skiers to bus or car pool options.

If we could eliminate single-occupancy vehicles we could reduce the number of cars in LCC by half.

People are asking, “Why did UTA not anticipate driver shortages and take necessary action? Why did UTA cut services in the canyons when empty buses run on other routes?”

Ultimately, someone needs to answer these questions. But for now UTA’s action has clearly demonstrated that effectively scheduled canyon bus service is fundamental to getting people out of cars. And with new electric bus technology, something ignored in UDOT’s environmental impact studies, canyon air quality can be improved.

But the gondola itself is a bad option because, like any massive fixed-infrastructure project, it is not scalable. Bus systems are flexible to respond to schedule and route changes. The proposed gondola would run non-stop all day whether or not they have riders. But bus service can be adjusted accordingly to demand.

Additionally, the gondola is a bad choice because it adds an hour or more to a ski trip. UDOT’s own calculations, from the mouth of the canyon, puts it at 27 minutes longer than a car/bus each way. But in that estimate is UDOT’s objective of having 1,050 riders per hour requires 500 cars an hour to be entering the garage (one car every eight seconds), negotiating parking in the 2,500 car garage, schlepping ski gear up multiple floors, waiting in lines for ticket purchases and queuing up for a gondola seat.

UDOT thinks this will only take 12 minutes. Really? Not likely.

It is also questionable how UDOT thinks it can get 2,500 cars into the garage during the peak morning travel window. That’s 833 cars per hour (one car every four seconds) during the three-hour period when most ski traffic occurs. Few skiers will make the turn for the gondola once the canyon mouth is in sight after experiencing this longer travel time.

Further, uncertainties exist in this option. There is little evidence, at least no peer reviewed studies, that demonstrate a 2,500 car garage/loading station will not just move congestion to Wasatch Boulevard and 9400 South, especially with morning road closures and with all bus service eliminated as proposed.

Think: 2,500 cars, all showing up between 7 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., trying to get into a parking garage. And while gondola evacuation procedures have been identified, it is not clear if resources have been itemized and budgeted for. Exactly how much time is required to evacuate 35-plus cabins 200 feet off the ground? This has never been publicly addressed.

Finally, there have been many days this year when a gondola would not have operated. LCC experienced sustained winds of 88 mph with gusts over 100 mph, all in excess of gondola operating parameters. It would not have been running while bus traffic would continue. A gondola is not safer or more dependable. It cannot run during avalanche mitigation and requires time for cables and systems to be inspected post mitigation.

Phased common-sense solutions make better sense. Every family operating on a budget knows you exhaust simple solutions to solve problems before expending large amounts of finite resources on a complex solution. Why should this be different?

Terry Heinrich

Terry Heinrich, Sandy, is a retired emergency department nurse and skier, having taught at Snowbird Adaptive Sports for more than 30 years. She is on the board of Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon and is on the board of Save Not Pave.