If we’re paying half a billion to get people up the canyon, there’s one thing we need, Editorial Board writes

The goal in Little Cottonwood and Park City should be more than just moving more people up a mountain.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Environmental activists fly large balloons over the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, to demonstrate the height of gondola towers the Utah Department of Transportation is proposing be built to carry people up to Alta and Snowbird ski resorts.

It is time for state and local officials in Utah to offer, and demand, a lot more openness about the management of our great wide open.

On both sides of the Wasatch, plans to manage, develop, and create access to some of the world’s best ski resorts and surrounding territory are under scrutiny.

Maybe not enough scrutiny. Right now we lack a public sharing of the data and assumptions that are crucial for intelligent decisions to be made in places where there may be no easy answers.

At the core of it all is the natural tension between public and private interests. Owners of ski resorts — Alta and Snowbird in Little Cottonwood Canyon and Park City Mountain Resort in Summit County — of course want to attract as many paying customers as they possibly can. Public officials are left with the responsibility of reviewing, designing, building and paying for the supporting infrastructure, mostly highways or some alternative.

What those public officials may need to be reminded of is the fact that their primary mission is to serve the larger interests of the public and not, necessarily, the interests of the private developers and landowners. At least not when the two sets of interests conflict.

But the holders of the pursestrings and ultimate makers of policy — members of the Utah Legislature — are a group for whom more is never enough.

What state and local governments owe people — those who live here and those who visit — are detailed and open calculations as to just how many people will reasonably fit on top of our beautiful mountain peaks, the most cost-effective ways of getting them there and, when necessary, keeping them away.

The discussion of how to get more people up State Route 210 to the Snowbird and Alta ski resorts has mostly boiled down to two alternatives now under review by the Utah Department of Transportation. Taking as its mission a need to put more people on top of the mountain, UDOT is looking at either improving the highway or building an eight-mile gondola suspended above Wasatch National Forest.

Either would cost at least a half billion dollars, plus annual maintenance, and involve some heavy construction that in the minds of some local officials and canyon fans is too much disruption of a beautiful landscape.

The mayors of Salt Lake County, Sandy and Cottonwood Heights are among those who think either alternative would be a lot of expensive earthmoving and viewshed disturbance to no good purpose. They favor a network of smaller steps, such as better and more frequent routing of electric buses, out of new transit hubs, along with reservation systems, tolling for the highway and/or parking, etc.

A gondola could be smoother, cleaner, quieter and involve a lot less concrete than a bigger highway. The sight of it and its support towers, offensive to some in the neighborhood, is common in Switzerland and other ski-centric, green-thinking parts of Europe. Where gas is expensive and public transportation is a habit.

Snowbird believes in the plan enough to have purchased some land — sort of without telling anyone — at the mouth of the canyon. It’s land that will become more valuable if the plan goes through.

But, as so far envisioned, the gondola would really only serve Snowbird and Alta, not the intervening trailheads and other attractions in the canyon, and so might do little to siphon auto traffic away from the highway and its many improvised parking areas, especially in the summer.

The highway expansion would also be expensive, disruptive and, like most projects in the history of pavement, likely to soon be overwhelmed by the increased traffic it will draw. (Does no one remember what keeps happening on I-15 through Salt Lake and Utah counties?)

It is difficult to justify either at taxpayer expense for a route to resorts that are already beyond the financial reach of so many Utahns.

A similar contretemps is happening in Park City, where a group of locals worried about highway and parking congestion want the owners of Park City Mountain Resort to show their work when calculating just how many skiers can fit on the slopes as the resort seeks to expand its lift capacity.

It’s the locals, after all, who have to deal with snarled traffic, fouled air and overwhelmed parking just so a great many people who don’t even live there can enjoy a day of putting a lot of money into the pockets of PCMR owner Vail Resorts.

PCMR would buy itself a lot of credit with its neighbors if it would agree to share its calculations, assumptions and goals with the public so they can be checked and evaluated.

And state taxpayers should not be expected to spend half a billion, or more, improving access only to a pair of mountain resorts without a thorough public review of all the data that would help us decide whether maximizing the number of visitors to private businesses is really a proper public goal.