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Ski Bus will strand some Alta skiers, sparking (unfounded) gondola conspiracy theories

UTA removes stop at Wildcat base, citing safety concerns.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) People walk down the driveway at the Wildcat base at Alta Ski Area, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. UTA told Alta they will stop servicing the bus stop citing safety concerns, meaning more pedestrians will need to do a similar walk during ski season.

For decades, the sloped drive from the Wildcat entrance to the Alta Ski Area has led to two of the resort’s most popular lifts as well as the Goldminer’s Daughter restaurant and lodge and about 200 seasonal lockers.

Now it also leads to a recently defunct Ski Bus stop and some conspiracy theories.

Last month, the Utah Transit Authority told Alta general manager Mike Maughan that the Goldminer’s Daughter stop will be cut from this season’s Ski Bus route. One of just two official stops in the town of Alta, it had been popular with resort regulars because of its proximity to lifts servicing the most rugged terrain and to several banks of lockers, where passholders and employees keep their gear. Last season, an average of 450 people got off the bus there every weekend.

“For the 35 years that I’ve ridden the bus, it’s been perfect,” said Laura Sim, a former professor who has a locker at Alta. “Let them worry about the bad roads.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alta Ski Area general manager Mike Maughan stands at the UTA bus stop outside the Wildcat base area, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. UTA told Alta they will stop servicing the bus stop citing safety concerns.

Aside from the occasional lengthy delay because of an accident or avalanche, Sim said her ski commutes have been mostly without incident. The trips to and from her home in Midvale typically take less than an hour. But this season the bad roads may be a major concern of hers even if she chooses to continue to ride the bus — because she may have to walk them to get to the resort.

So, Sim, 67, has been asking: why is UTA messing with a good thing?

SIDESWIPED

According to Eric Callison, UTA’s manager of service planning, it all comes down to efficiency and safety.

“We’re trying to get as many people up the canyon as possible and keep them safe as possible,” Callison said, “even if that means the service isn’t quite the same as it’s been.”

In September, UTA announced that a driver shortage, exacerbated by the tight job market, was forcing it to make sweeping cuts on most of its routes, including the high-demand Ski Bus up the canyons. Those cuts included eliminating one of the two Ski Bus routes servicing Alta and neighboring Snowbird Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon. In addition, the remaining Little Cottonwood route, plus the route going to Brighton and Solitude in Big Cottonwood Canyon, will now run every half hour instead of every 15 minutes. Maughan said by his estimates, service to his resort will be cut 75%.

To soften the blow, the agency has opted to run larger buses, beginning Dec. 11. The 40-foot buses can seat 36-38 people, Callison said, compared to 23 in the 35-foot buses it most often ran in recent years.

But there are drawbacks.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A UTA Ski Bus stops at the Big Cottonwood Canyon park and ride lot on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, as the snow flies. UTA has had to severely cut Ski Bus service this year because of a driver shortage and safety concerns. Service is scheduled to begin Dec. 11.

UTA feels uncomfortable having the longer buses travel the narrow bypass road, which means The Cliffs stop at Snowbird will also be a casualty. It also doesn’t want drivers trying to make the sharp turn onto Highway 210 from the Wildcat entrance road above the Goldminer’s Daughter stop or performing what it deems a tight turnaround amid traffic within the lot. Callison noted that a bus skidded over an embankment while trying to make a left-hand turn on its way to that bus stop just last year. The driver, he said, had to be rescued from the vehicle.

“We’ve been operating the Ski Bus in the canyon for a long time,” Callison said, “but this has helped us take a closer look at things to realize that there are probably some changes we could make to be proactive to prevent that kind of incident from happening in the future.”

Callison said UTA conferred with the resorts about the Ski Bus and called them “good sports.” Maughan, however, said he felt sideswiped when UTA informed him of its decision regarding the stop only a month before Alta’s scheduled Nov. 18 opening.

“Maybe there could have been some physical adjustment made to the areas of concern to make it able to accommodate the bus service,” Maughan said. “But when you bring it to the table when there’s already snow on the ground and we’re on the doorstep of opening, there’s not time to engineer anything or to implement it.”

Both Alta and Snowbird have increased the number of employee shuttles they run from the valley to clear up space for guests on the bus. Maughan also approached UDOT about removing the cement barrier that separates through traffic on Highway 210 from that turning into and out of the Wildcat lot. He said agency officials told him it is open to discussing it. UTA, he said, is not.

In an email to the Tribune, UTA spokesperson Carl Arky wrote that the divider is not a concern for the agency.

STOP OPTIONS

Ski Bus riders destined for the Wildcat area have several, mostly unappealing, options.

They can ride the bus to either the Alta Peruvian Lodge, just west of Wildcat base, or to the Albion base at the far east end of town. From Albion, if they have their skis, they can take a tow lift to the Wildcat area. If they have lockers or are staying at the Goldminer’s Daughter, however, they’ll have to schlep their gear about half a mile to the other side of the ski area. Then they’ll have to do it again at the end of the day since Albion is the last pickup spot in Alta before the bus heads back to the valley (Callison said UTA is looking at safe options for adding another pickup spot on the west side of town).

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) An existing bus stop at Peruvian Lodge outside Alta Ski Area, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. UTA told Alta they will stop servicing the bus stop citing safety concerns, meaning more skiers will need to walk from here during ski season.

If passengers disembark at the Peruvian, they have two choices. They can either slide down a steep and deep hillside behind the lodge to the resort or walk about a quarter mile with traffic in the snow along the shoulder of Highway 210 and down the driveway. The free Alta Town Shuttle also circulates among the lodges and ski area, but Maughan said its vans are small and not suited to handle hundreds of stranded Ski Bus passengers.

Alta has said it will issue refunds to customers who relied on the bus service from the discontinued route 953 or who were dependent on the Wildcat bus stop.

“We’re either going to put people in a less safe position in trying to use the bus and get to their work or their locker,” Maughan said, “or, I fear that most of them will just say the bus doesn’t work anymore and they’ll start driving.”

And that’s where the conspiracy theories come in.

THE GONDOLA THEORY

Earlier this year, UDOT recommended building a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon to allay traffic congestion. Gondola opponents subsequently voiced plans to increase bus ridership, among other efforts, to prove that viable and less-obtrusive traffic management alternatives exist. Yet UTA — which is not connected to UDOT — has made Ski Bus cuts that have unintentionally hurt that effort.

“I am not a conspiracy theorist,” Sim said. “But then I started thinking, … ‘Is this some weird, kind of covert way that they’re going to try to put more cars into the canyon so they can further justify the whole gondola?’”

Maughan, a proponent of the gondola, doesn’t subscribe to that theory. He also put to bed another potential conspiracy theory: That Alta would welcome the drop in service so it could charge more people for parking. The ski area instituted a paid parking and reservation system last year.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alta Ski Area general manager Mike Maughan stands at the UTA bus stop outside the Wildcat base area, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. UTA told Alta they will stop servicing the bus stop citing safety concerns.

Callison agreed that UTA’s cuts will inevitably lead to more cars in the canyon. However, he rejected the suggestion that it is the agency’s intent.

“At this point in time, we’re just trying to make it to April,” said Callison, referring to the last month of Ski Bus service each season. “The lofty talk of a gondola 10 years from now has not even entered our radar as far as the ski service this year.”

He said any cuts to service relate either to the lack of drivers or to safety concerns. UTA has enacted several initiatives to attract more drivers and support personnel, but Callison said some enticements, such as wage increases, must first be brokered with the unions. UTA is in the midst of those negotiations.

So, even though UTA is hoping to have a full roster of drivers lined up by next ski season, Callison said he expects the gaps in service to continue for a few years. The gap in service to the Goldminer’s Daughter stop could well beyond than that, he added.

“That might be even a longer conversation that goes on for several more years, trying to figure out what is the best way for us to service these canyons going forward,” he said. “But this is what we can do this year.”

So it seems that if nothing else, both the Alta skiers and UTA can agree on this: The driveway into Wildcat is, in numerous ways, a slippery slope.

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