Kirk Nichols: We can’t build our way out of congestion in canyons

UDOT’s plan for Little Cottonwood Canyon could be challenged in the courts but it will be expensive.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Cottonwood Canyon on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023.

Little Cottonwood Canyon’s bulldozers are already rolling over Utahns’ right to be heard. You may have submitted a comment, but what if your comment was not responded to in the Little Cottonwood-Environmental Impact Statement (LCC-EIS), or Record of Decision (ROD). Fortunately for you, Congress proactively passed these two acts:

By promulgating the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 (APA), this country took the bold step of broadening democracy by inviting the public to play a consistent role in federal agency decision making. Twenty three years later, when Congress wrote the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — the law concerned with the human environment — echoed the APA by emphasizing the responsibility of federal agencies to listen to the public through public comment periods and by allowing a citizen to appeal agency failures-of-compliance based on both NEPA and the APA.

Not only do we biannually vote for members of our Federal Government (who then appoint heads of our Agencies, who hire directors, who hire agents — which spans a great disconnect from our vote) but we, through these two Acts of Congress, have a voice to be heard and responded to after the agency takes a hard look at our written, substantive comments. Our concerns may then affect policy from the grassroots level — not just at that distant election two years ago and down a chain of a dozen levels of administration. This is democracy.

The LCC-EIS Record of Decision (ROD) was released on July 12, though it became operative on June 29, which started the public appeal or protest period that continues through Dec. 11. Had the Forest Service been the lead agency, the citizens would automatically have the resolution opportunity to appeal to a higher official to review the citizen’s claim of the EIS being out-of-compliance with NEPA and the APA. The federal agency under whom UDOT is operating is the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). UDOT has personally informed me that they are not offering a citizen’s appeal and resolution because they don’t have to. True.

But listen to what the Council on Environmental Quality (created within NEPA to advise federal agencies) and the White House have to say on respecting citizen appeals of the ROD:

“These approaches, referred to as environmental collaboration and conflict resolution (ECCR), are often beneficial if the process ahead may be particularly contentious or challenging and include a past history of deeply divided interests. …The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and CEQ underscored ECCR’s utility by jointly issuing memoranda that directed Federal agencies to increase the effective use of environmental conflict resolution and build institutional capacity for collaborative problem solving.”

Safe to say that the LCC-EIS is contentious with a history of deeply divided interests.

So where do we stand? Both APA and NEPA hold the door open for costly judicial review. I have been advised that if started, litigation would run $300,000 to $500,000, well beyond most citizens resources.

I can only hope that funding can be raised for appealing to the better judgement of the courts who will review UDOT’s irrational placing of large parking terraces deep in the already congested mouths of our Wasatch Canyons. UDOT’s study area was exclusively SR-210, meaning they never studied all sources of congestion leading up to the proposed parking terraces or any intersection with SR-210, and some congestion backs up for miles. The congestion must be solved through regional planning across geographically connected areas and studying cumulative impacts as required by the CEQ and NEPA.

NEPA requires the study of the affected area, not the UDOT study-area consisting of only the new pavement and none of the area where the million people will spread out across the mountains. When I asked UDOT in meetings and in writing, UDOT declined discuss or to anticipate and plan for the latent demand of valley residents who want to increase their visits to the canyons. UDOT has failed to create stand-alone alternatives that consider reservations, limits, and metered entry along with regional parking and increased transit hubs throughout the valley. Although citizen’s written and spoken comments addressed these issues, UDOT never did.

In the LCC-EIS, UDOT never mentions studying the cumulative effects of building an internationally attractive playground-ride to two resorts along with the latent demand already waiting along with the unstudied congestion on feeder roads and the cumulative effect of the unstudied Big Cottonwood Canyon, along with another Olympics in the next decade. Phew, that is a lot of unstudied effects and actions. Time to get back to work UDOT. And maybe skip the gondola this time, because it and its parking lots will only add to the congestion.

We can’t build our way out of the congestion. Anything we build will be immediately overwhelmed by the latent demand present in the valley. We are in the age of limits and reservations. Something other than a rational transportation system is behind the gondola.

Kirk Nichols

Kirk Nichols’ family has been in Utah as legislators, doctors, nurses, ranchers and in the mining industry for more than 175 years. Kirk was formerly a seasonal Forest Service ecologist and is currently a professor of Outdoor Recreation Studies at the University of Utah.