Tribune Editorial: Clogged canyons? More bus, less fuss

(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 began this winter.

They’re funnels of love.

Each year, little two-lane roads carry millions of visitors who start in a sprawling metropolis and rise to alpine splendor.

There really aren’t many places like Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, and that is drawing ever bigger numbers to live and work in the valley below. Even the most stress-laden urbanite can find the solace of nature in a matter of minutes.

Or not.

It’s now common on weekends to see hours-long waits to get up and down the canyons. Our overcrowded national parks? The Cottonwoods get more people than all five parks combined, and they all traverse those two little roads.

So now we’ve arrived at a point where the attraction is the threat. Love hurts.

At a forum on canyon congestion last week sponsored by The Salt Lake Tribune, Snowbird President Dave Fields, Save Our Canyons Executive Director Carl Fisher and Central Wasatch Commission Executive Director Ralph Becker didn’t fully align on the solutions, but they all agreed on one thing: There are too many cars.

That’s cars with poor snow drivers, cars with no traction on icy roads and cars with one person in them. Even if they make it all the way up, they clog the parking lots. And all it takes is one of them to go sideways and bounce off a snowbank, and everything shuts down.

Fields pointed out that you can’t even rent a car with snow tires at Salt Lake City International Airport, but we send hundreds of rental cars up those canyons every winter, many driven by people who have no clue about what they’re facing.

If not cars, what?

Fields spoke in favor of some kind of aerial tramway/gondola system that can move thousands in any weather up and down Little Cottonwood, and he said Snowbird could help fund it. Becker talked about a possible return of trains to Little Cottonwood. The rail beds used to move ore from Alta’s mines a century ago still exist. Both of those options channel images of the Swiss Alps, where trains, trams and funiculars have scaled the mountains for decades.

But Fisher, representing the simpler world of backcountry skiers and hikers, points to an easier, faster way: More buses.

The truth is that this winter’s gridlock would have been much worse if stakeholders hadn’t come up with the money to have more frequent Utah Transit Authority buses in the canyons. Ridership on ski buses is up more than 30 percent this year because of it.

Those fancy transportation options? They’re still worth studying, and they may even be unavoidable if the valley adds another million people. But the fastest, cheapest way to reduce cars in the canyons is to add more buses. Even that would require a couple of years to buy more buses (they should be electric) and build out better loading zones, but it would be a fraction of the time, money and environmental impact of the other solutions.

Fisher is right. If we’re looking for the quickest fix, we should get on the bus.