Thursday, May 11, 2023

Tragedy of the Cottonwoods

A red snake at Snowbird in September

Although it was a great ski season, the reality is that transportation challenges remain ongoing in the Cottonwoods.  The Central Wasatch Commission recently approved its Big Cottonwood Canyon Mobility Action Plan in which they recommend the following

  • Restripe the Big Cottonwood Canyon Park & Ride lot (I have no idea why they included this extremely minor change)
  • Implement a supplementary shuttle in Big Cottonwood Canyon
  • Enhanced bus service with a dedicated transit lane with resort mobility hubs
  • Improvements at the intersection between Fort Union Boulevard and Wasatch Boulevard
  • Tolling, restrictions to canyon on-road parking, and incentivizing bus options
  • Year-round bus service featuring canyon trailhead stops
Additionally, this week UDOT apparently began to float a trial balloon for tolling plans, with media reports suggesting costs for travel would vary, but tolls could be between $25 and $35 per vehicle.  In Little Cottonwood, it's suggested that tolling would be applied above the White Pine trailhead.  It's unclear a this time where tolling would occur in Big Cottonwood.  

None of these recent announcements have given me much optimism for the future.  There are commissions, departments of transportation, transit authorities, and local and state agencies.  There are recommendations and plans, but not a lot of coordination.  Proposals for massive infrastructure (e.g., the Little Cottonwood Gondola) appear to have limited public support.  

This past season, existing bus service was actually cut, substantially.  The UDOT program manager overseeing the Little Cottonwood Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) told the Salt Lake Tribune earlier this year that the $150 million in state funds for tolling and busing could not be accessed until the record of decision for the EIS was issued.  That has not happened yet.  It would then take two years to buy and vet the busses and to advertise, design, and build a mobility hub.  That timeline seems optimistic.  

Beyond the Cottonwoods, recreation in Mill Creek canyon has also exploded in recent years.  In part, this is probably due to traffic in the Cottonwoods.  It really could use a shuttle as well.  

So where does this put us?  It sounds like improved mobility hubs and tolling are probably not going to happen until at least the 2025–26 season.  A gondola?  Who knows.  Are the buses being discussed by UDOT simply to service the gondola or, if the gondola is in a state of flux, will we see an increase in service up the canyons?  Will there be stops at backcountry trailheads?  

I suspect the best thing that could happen in the short term is expanded use of parking reservations at the resorts. Solitude is considering doing this.  That and more snow years with a decent snowpack in the low-to-mid elevations to enable recreation outside the tri-canyons (yes, that's what we used to call Mill Creek, Little Cottonwood, and Big Cottonwood Canyons), which was a real bonus this past season.  


  1. RIP BCC/LCC. Just no real solutions to the demand now placed on these canyons.

  2. 25-35 per car? That is insane.

  3. Don't be too hard on UTA. Many have alleged without any evidence there's some conspiracy with UTA cancellations in being cahoots the pro gondola elements of our state. I've talked with the lead resource/route planner and the issues involving bus routes are complicated. The bottom line is there's a nationwide bus driver shortage (labor shortages abound in all corners these days), and union contracts take time to negotiate are full of constraints, and seasonal routes are less desirable for drivers to bid on, etc.. . Most importantly, it turns out that the people who need busses the most for going about their daily lives are working class folks, those with disabilities, the elderly, those who've never put boot to ski; and the UTA must (often on federal authority) prioritize that service over anything that serves relatively well off ski types doing recreational activities. So, thank your bus drivers, take the bus regularly all over town, and write the UTLEG for more funding for UTA.

    1. Unions involved with a UTA are one reason they’re talking about sticking it to people who want to drive a car up the canyon…

  4. A tale of overly ambitious engineers and an overbudget project. The failed Timberline, Oregon gondola:

    A linear scar up the mountain is all that remains to this day.,-121.7422255,4598m/data=!3m1!1e3!5m1!1e4

  5. If all 4 ski areas went with a full time 100% parking reservation system that included the road side parking areas, then we would quickly end up in a spot where people would not drive up unless they already had a spot waiting. That would work wonders. No need to line up at 6am, no people turned away. Plan ahead, take buses, or go elsewhere. Reduce the early morning rush and spread uphill traffic out over a few hours. It is the single thing that can be done now which would have a real impact. But I suspect the areas would be totally opposed.

    Also it needs to be all 4 ski areas. Alta's parking reservation system on the weekends has allowed me to take my time and drive up on less crowded days at 10am without worrying about getting skunked. On some powder days, I've still had to go up earlier because overflow from the Bird, once their parking is full, just keeps going up and people park illegally/without permit because there is no way someone who took the time to go up is going to head down if they can get a spot. I've seen plenty of people parking at Alta and walking around with snowboards. So some reserved parking doesn't work. If it was all reserved, it would work.