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SALT LAKE CITY — Both canyons have two ski resorts at the top. And both canyons see roughly the same number of cars during the ski season.
But only one is at the heart of two sweeping transportation proposals that could run taxpayers north of half a billion dollars and permanently change how people interact with the canyon.
That canyon is Little Cottonwood Canyon. Meanwhile, nothing remotely close is being discussed for Big Cottonwood Canyon, which even over the past fall weekend saw an average of 10,000 cars each day. The busiest ski days typically bring between 5,800 and 7,700.
The Utah Department of Transportation has implemented some smaller scale traffic and safety mitigation efforts, like its traffic dashboard, improved social media communication, restricting parking in certain areas and expanding it in others. But on Monday, a spokesperson for the department said outside of these operational changes, no long-term projects are being talked about.
Little Cottonwood Canyon is far more exposed to avalanches than its neighbor — there are 64 slide paths in the canyon alone, and over half of state Route 210 is threatened by avalanches.
Little Cottonwood Canyon closes several times each year due to avalanche conditions, and its exposure during a dangerous snowpack is a driving factor for the current transportation proposals.
But the number of cars and subsequent accidents in Big Cottonwood can cause traffic, too. Just ask the throngs of people stuck in their cars, some for up to seven hours, last winter after a truck collided with oncoming traffic, sending both vehicles over the edge and into the river.
"We have an absolute disaster on our hands. It's a mess," said Brighton Mayor Dan Knopp. "The question is, do we look at a short-term solution with a long-term solution, or do we just keep kicking the can down the road?"
Knopp says he supports the gondola, a $592 million, 8-mile long project currently being proposed, over the other option, an enhanced bus service and extra lane that would cost $510 million. Spokespeople for Brighton and Solitude say neither resort has an official position on the matter.
UDOT wrapped up the public comment period for the environmental impact statement in September and now faces the daunting task of sifting through a record-breaking 13,000 submissions before it issues its recommendation, likely sometime in the spring.
Some of Knopp's support for the gondola stems from its ability to keep Little Cottonwood Canyon open, in some cases reducing the spillover effect that many are worried could happen should either of the proposals take shape.
"Every time that a stumbling block to go up Little Cottonwood happens, we get overwhelmed even more," he said.
Some have also voiced concern that if UDOT implements a toll in Little Cottonwood, it could result in more people going up Big Cottonwood instead, resulting in further congestion. UDOT officials have said if tolling is implemented, it will be for both canyons.
Regardless of what happens in Little Cottonwood, stakeholders in Big Cottonwood hope a similar debate over their canyon happens soon.
"We haven't been able to talk about the other canyons at all. So hopefully now it's time that we can start to do that," Knopp said, noting that in November the Central Wasatch Commission will begin looking at targeted transportation solutions for Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Ralph Becker, executive director of the Central Wasatch Commission and former Salt Lake City Mayor, echoed Knopp, telling the Deseret News the commission believes "pretty strongly that they need to really be looking almost as carefully ... at Big Cottonwood Canyon, and the connections to the valley transportation system to be able to make it all work."
In June, the Central Wasatch Commission released its "pillars for transportation," outlining six principals the body would like to see eventually implemented into broader transportation solutions in the area.
The commission lays out several changes it hopes to see immediately — things like variable tolling, limited access for single occupancy vehicles, carpool programs and less on-road parking.
"None of the proposed transportation alternatives in the (environmental impact statement) will be fully effective" unless these smaller-scale solutions are implemented first, the document states. But it stops short of calling for a project in Big Cottonwood on par with what's being talked about in the next canyon over.
Key to the commission's document is a "holistic" approach to transportation, a point reiterated during a meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Monday.
Chris Robinson, commission chairman, compared the situation in the canyons and surrounding roadways to a balloon — "when you compress one corner, or one side of it, it expands somewhere else."
"The decisions made in Little Cottonwood Canyon, invariably, are going to have significant effects on Big Cottonwood Canyon," Becker added.
But the reality, according to Robinson, is the targeted approach UDOT is taking is more effective than attempting to curb traffic in the central Wasatch in one fell swoop, a process that could go beyond the $1 billion mark and might not even make it through the early stages of the NEPA process.
NEPA refers to the National Environmental Policy Act, a law passed in 1970 that dictates how government agencies assess the environmental impacts of proposed projects.
"At some place you've got to say, 'Well, the hole is too big to mend,' and so you bite off pieces," Robinson said. "They've bitten off a piece that's a very important one, and hopefully, whatever is decided will fit well into a tapestry of the other canyons."
Is Little Cottonwood the testing ground for Big?
In a way, the debate over Little Cottonwood acts as a guinea pig for stakeholders in Big Cottonwood, who are able to gauge what solutions the public supports, what solutions can withstand the NEPA and public comment process, and if it comes to it, what solutions are effective.
"I wouldn't say that anything that works there will work in Big Cottonwood Canyon," said Sara Huey, communications manager at Solitude. "But there is an advantage to being able to see that process play out in that unique environment, and we are keeping a keen eye on it."
The guinea pig analogy also works for UDOT. Although each canyon has a unique topography and, in turn, a unique set of transportation needs, John Gleason, spokesperson for the department, says there is a benefit in tackling one canyon at a time.
"Anything that happens in Little Cottonwood Canyon, we'll absolutely look at it and see what the effects will be in Big Cottonwood Canyon as well and account for that," he said. "For us, it's really important to look at projecting into the future ... but also look at what's happening real-time and be able to make those adjustments."
Though in the coming years Knopp will have to settle with the smaller operational changes, the mayor has lofty hopes. For Little Cottonwood, he wants to see UDOT bring the train back into the debate, an idea that was ruled out last winter.
"What could conceivably happen is there's so much pushback against the gondola, and everybody with a brain realizes that cars and buses are not the real solution, the train might come back up on the table. That would be awesome," he said.
As for Big Cottonwood? The mayor thinks reliable, year-round access to both Summit County and Little Cottonwood — whether that means tunnels or a gondola — would alleviate congestion in the canyon.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what needs to happen. We got to make a transportation process that comes over at the top ends of those canyons."
Correction: In a previous version, a spokesman for UDOT incorrectly said Big Cottonwood Canyon averaged 8,300 cars during the weekend of Oct. 2. Big Cottonwood Canyon actually averaged 10,000 cars during that weekend.