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SALT LAKE CITY — If you've ever driven up Little Cottonwood Canyon on a powder day, or even just on a weekend for that matter, chances are you've experienced the dreaded, infamous red snake of traffic.
Last winter saw record-breaking visitation numbers for all 15 of Utah's ski resorts, with data compiled by Ski Utah showing 5.3 million skier days over the winter of 2020-21. A skier day is defined as one person skiing or snowboarding at a resort during any part of a day or night.
But a new student group at the University of Utah is pushing back on plans designed to help address canyon traffic congestion.
In response to unprecedented visitation numbers and increasingly congested traffic, the Utah Department of Transportation is currently assessing two different options to address the issue: an 8-mile gondola at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon that would take the public to Snowbird or Alta, or a rapid bus system with a widened road.
The gondola is estimated to cost $592 million while the bus system is estimated to cost $510 million.
"When I first heard about the gondola, I actually thought it was a joke," Mallory Philliber, a member of Students for the Wasatch, a student group at the University of Utah that is concerned with UDOT's transportation proposals for Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The group was started in November after Emily Pitsch, a biochemistry doctoral student at the U., heard about UDOT's proposals and was connected with other concerned students. Pitsch serves as a co-president for Students for the Wasatch alongside Claudia Wiese, an undergraduate biology student at the U.
"I really love the canyon and I think it is beautiful and very important for our quality of life here in the valley, and it's also part of our watershed, so I think that needs to be protected to the best of our ability," Pitsch said.
The alternative transportation options that state transportation officials selected are aimed to reduce the number of vehicles on state Route 210. The highway is expected to only get more crowded over the next few decades.
Such alternative transportation plans are needed, UDOT officials say, because projections show that the use of the canyon will grow by 45% over the next 30 years. If that's the case, they estimate an 80- to 85-minute travel time by 2050. Some of the neighboring roads that lead to the mouth of the canyon would end up having lines miles long as motorists try to get up the canyon.
That would not only create headaches for motorists but also pose safety concerns.
Students for the Wasatch held an event at the state Capitol this past week where they spoke out about concerns surrounding the proposals and advocated for a commonsense approach to improving canyon transportation as well as the use of electric buses.
"Either the gondola or the road expansion both have price tags of $600 million of taxpayer dollars and they would both really only service Little Cottonwood Canyon so really only the private businesses of Snowbird and Alta. We don't like the idea of using taxpayer dollars to subsidize these private businesses," Philliber said.
Both Philliber and Pitsch also raised concerns about Little Cottonwood Canyon's status as a watershed area, pointing out that large-scale construction projects in the canyon could jeopardize the quality of drinking water throughout the valley.
Currently, over 60% of the water used by residents of the Salt Lake Valley comes from canyons in the Wasatch Mountains, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
"The runoff from construction machinery like oils and pollutants and things associated with port-a-potties as well as blowing up the rock — all of that is going to lead to debris in our Little Cottonwood Creek which flows to the bottom of the canyon where it is purified for drinking," Pitsch said.
Additionally, the student group is also concerned that the transportation proposals only address traffic congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon, when there is an equally daunting problem with traffic in Big Cottonwood Canyon where Solitude and Brighton ski areas are located.
"You can't really separate the two canyons because of their close proximity, so I think it's a bit too short-sighted," Pitsch said.
As well as only addressing one canyon, Pitsch and Philliber said that the gondola proposal specifically would only cater to one use — resortgoers — on what is a multiple-use national forest.
"It's only going to stop at the ski resorts," Pitsch said of the gondola.
"I do ski, I do climb, but I think it would be really cool if we had better access for everyone to be able to experience these canyons," Philliber added. "Buses could stop at trailheads rather than just ski resorts. I think that would be awesome."
Simple solutions to a complex problem?
Students for the Wasatch describes the proposals as "short-sighted" and argues that there is already a viable system in place to address traffic congestion in the Cottonwood Canyons — public transit. They believe it just has to be invested in and expanded.
This expansion, Pitsch believes, shouldn't include literally widening the road up Little Cottonwood Canyon, either.
"We think it's unnecessary. Jumping straight to creating this four-lane highway through our beautiful canyon is a bit ridiculous, especially considering it's going to cost half-a-billion dollars," Pitsch said.
Students for the Wasatch is in opposition to the proposal for a rapid bus system with a widened road due to similar concerns they have over the proposed gondola plan that they believe would negatively impact the viewshed throughout the canyon and could potentially pose environmental problems with construction.
"The widened road is definitely not something I want to see in the canyon (and) it's also problematic with the construction," Pitsch said.
Pitsch said that the Utah Transit Authority's ski bus system, which transports skiers and riders to Snowbird, Alta, Brighton and Solitude, has already laid the groundwork for a potential solution to the canyon's traffic problems.
"The biggest limiting factor to get people onto the ski bus is the fact that there isn't enough parking at the park-and-rides," Pitsch said. "I think we should start with easy solutions. ... We need a bigger capacity to park."
These solutions, Pitsch said, include identifying places throughout the Salt Lake Valley for people to park on the weekends and be able to access the ski bus. She also talked about the need for more buses — preferably electric, to combat the valley's air quality issues — to make it more convenient for people to access public transit.
"As taxpayers and water drinkers and not just skiers and climbers, we really would like to see an approach to this problem that would encompass more public transit — having park-and-rides all across the valley so that people, no matter where you live and if you have a car or not, could access the canyon," Philliber said.
Along with expanding and investing in public transit, Pitsch said it also needs to be incentivized, perhaps by adding tolls for cars heading up the canyon after a certain time or restricting single-occupancy vehicles from driving up the canyon to encourage carpooling for those that do choose to drive.
Philliber discussed having more bus stops outside of hotels to provide tourists with easy access to the ski bus, as well as bus stops across campuses like the University of Utah, Westminster and Salt Lake Community College to provide students throughout the valley with easier routes to access the skiing that many came to Salt Lake City for.
"I would like to see improvements to the current bus system, which is pretty simple by just increasing the number of buses, having direct routes to the ski resorts and providing more parking so people can get on the (ski) buses," Pitsch said.
Philliber said that investing in public transit would also provide a more "immediate" solution to the problem, as opposed to waiting for construction to be completed for either the gondola or the widened road.
"We have a traffic problem, we need solutions yesterday. Having (an) improved bus system would just solve the problem immediately rather than having to wait however long that construction period would take," Philliber said.