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Scott G Winterton, KSL, File

Trains, tunnels still 'on the table' for Cottonwood canyon transportation, officials say

By Katie McKellar, KSL | Posted - Sep 18th, 2018 @ 10:03am

SALT LAKE CITY — It's been more than three years since the Mountain Accord was signed to develop a long-range plan to manage transportation and conservation interests in Utah's central Wasatch.

And for months there's been $66 million waiting to be used for improvements in the Cottonwood canyons.

Yet Utahns, heading into another winter, are likely going to see yet another year without any drastic transportation changes in the canyons, meaning powder days will come with the same traffic delays.

But slowly, as members of the still new Central Wasatch Commission — the governmental entity that morphed out of the Mountain Accord stakeholder — continue to organize themselves, local officials are inching their way toward more concrete changes.

Meanwhile, ideas that have long lingered as potential solutions in the Cottonwood canyons remain on the table.

That includes tunnels and trains, Central Wasatch Commission leaders said in a meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Tuesday.

"We actually have to do something for those of us who live in that area," said Sandy City Councilman Chris McCandless, chairman of the Central Wasatch Commission. "Powder days are absolutely brutal."

But even though the Utah Transportation Commission appropriated about $66 million in state funds to address traffic in the state's most crowded recreational areas to the Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, there's still a lot of work that needs to be done to figure out exactly how to spend that money.

The Central Wasatch Commission is waiting for the results of a Utah Department of Transportation environmental impact study now underway before proposing how to spend the $66 million, said former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who helped drive the Mountain Accord and was hired earlier this year as the commission's executive director.

The study is scheduled to be completed by early next year, Becker said.

"By (UDOT) standards, they're on a very fast track," the former mayor said.

$66 million not enough?

Ever since the Mountain Accord was signed in 2015, the proposals to connect Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons with a tunnel and the development of street-level transit along the canyon's major roadways have remained possible outcomes.

Yet McCandless said the $66 million still may not be enough to fund such projects, which he said have had multibillion dollar estimates.

However, if that money were to combine with a different revenue stream — say canyon tolls — it may be enough for some major changes, Becker said.

"We'll find out," McCandless said. "And if we can't find that money, we'll look for it elsewhere."

Bus service and tolling: affordable option

The Utah Legislature this year passed a bill to allow for more tolling on crowded Utah roadways. This spring, a civil and environmental engineering class at the University of Utah released a study that recommended a toll for Little Cottonwood Canyon to help pay for improvements and stem congestion.

It's too soon to say what kind of major changes are coming in the Wasatch, but in the short-term, McCandless said bus service and tolling are looking to be the "affordable" option.

But Becker noted that whatever short-term changes come, the aim is to preserve a long-term plan.

"For example, (UDOT officials) think within the existing right o -way they can have three lanes of traffic and a bike lane going up and a shared bike lane going down," Becker said. "If we had a dedicated lane, for example, in the middle for busses, it could get converted to rail (later)."

Federal designation

In the meantime, the Central Wasatch Commission is also working on a new federal designation in the Wasatch canyons.

The legislation would establish an 80,000-acre conservation and recreation area for the central Wasatch Mountains and add more than 8,000 acres of new wilderness. Three Salt Lake County ski resorts — Brighton, Solitude, and Snowbird — would agree to higher elevation land swaps with the U.S. Forest Service in exchange for land near base operations for expansion.

Proponents are looking to the Utah delegation to introduce the bill perhaps by early next year, Becker said.

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