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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Buses could receive police escort this ski season to ease traffic

Nov 21, 2019 05:26PM ● By Cassie Goff

The Little Cottonwood Canyon Park and Ride will no longer be utilized by UTA. Instead, its encouraged use will be for carpooling. (Cassie Goff/City Journals)

By Cassie Goff | [email protected]

For the last few years, multiple entities have discussed how to mitigate the ski traffic in the canyons on snow days. The Central Wasatch Commission (CWC) has been primarily leading the discussions between the ski resorts, neighboring cities including Sandy, Holladay, and Cottonwood Heights, the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), Salt Lake County, and the State Legislature. 

Over the four-month season, there can be up to 26,000 cars visiting the canyons. On average, there are 2.7 people in each of those cars. “That’s a lot on the roads, air quality and congestion,” said Central Wasatch Commission Deputy Director Blake Perez. 

Perez and Central Wasatch Commission Executive Director Ralph Becker discussed some potential transportation improvement opportunities that can be implemented this year with the Cottonwood Heights City Council on Oct. 15. During that discussion, there was a somewhat surprising suggestion. 

“The concept is being able to provide a police escort for busses up to the mouth of the canyon,” Becker said. “We are developing the resources and budget to deliver this service. This is where the county’s interest lies.”

“The county would provide the resources for it,” followed up Becker. “UPD (Unified Police Department) is fully occupied up in the canyon. Sandy City has told us that they will do it on the Sandy side (9400 South). Now, we are looking to see whether or not Cottonwood Heights might fill this piece of it with some financial help.” 

The primary focus during the last few years for improving ski traffic has been to encourage residents and visitors to utilize public transportation and/or ride-sharing options. As part of this push, the ski resorts have been working on providing more shuttles and creating ride-sharing apps; Cottonwood Heights is in the process of creating more available parking further west in the city; the state has set aside $13 million for a transportation hub within Cottonwood Heights; and UTA has revised their strategies to provide more transportation up the canyon. 

As part of this focus, UTA transportation must be given priority. Since busses get stuck in ski traffic along Wasatch Boulevard as well, the CWC and Salt Lake County are hoping to give busses police escorts to the canyon. The hope is that this will encourage the use of public transportation.  

“There’s still a lot of logistics that would have to be worked out on that,” said City Manager Tim Tingey.

“We have been talking to Sandy PD, UPD and UTA PD about what it’s going to take to do this,” Becker said. “Apparently Sandy City has been doing this on their side for residents and school busses on these crazy snow days.” 

From what Becker and Perez understand, the police escort would stop the traffic headed down the canyon and northbound on Wasatch. Then, the bus would be allowed to pass the ski traffic on the left-hand side, crossing into the lane that would normally be dedicated for northbound traffic. Ultimately, the bus would be escorted to the front of the traffic line at the mouth of the canyons. Ideally, the need for these police escorts would only occur about 20 to 30 days per year. 

As UTA’s bus schedule runs a bus on Wasatch Boulevard and up the canyon every 15 minutes, the police escort would occur every 15 minutes with the busses as well. 

“I had the same talk with UPD,” said Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo. “We would like to run it by the district attorney’s office because we aren’t sure that we have the authority to use public safety equipment on a non-public safety issue, to escort busses up the canyon.”

“We want to help,” Russo continued. “But I think about all those residents in District 4 who will be really mad at me if I make them stop and pull over.” 

“So every 15 minutes,” Councilman Mike Shelton said, “you’d shut it down for six to 10 minutes?” 

There wasn’t a definite answer to Shelton’s question since there was some misunderstanding about the route of the police escort, and how long that would realistically take. 

“I think it’s important to note that this is what the county is interested in pursuing,” Perez said. “We are still flushing through details as it will require coordination between a few of the police departments and we are working through that.” 

Part of Becker and Perez’s discussions with the surrounding entities is to get an estimation on what a police escort service might cost throughout the different cities. As UPD is already overly busy on ski days, Salt Lake County is hoping the different police departments can spare bodies and resources if the county provides the funding. 

The main reason for Becker and Perez’s visit was to request Cottonwood Heights consider a one-time contribution of $8,000 for service enhancements. UTA had identified some opportunities to mitigate ski traffic, but they need $150,000 to implement those changes this year. The CWC suggested to split that cost between the entities that are part of the CWC. Their goal is to find $20,000 from multiple different entities, as UTA will cover the rest, and absorb all the cost moving forward. Alta, Salt Lake County and Sandy had already agreed to contribute.  

The service enhancement strategies UTA identified to help mitigate ski traffic include eliminating the Bingham Junction stop and the Little Cottonwood Canyon Park and Ride Lot, making changes to bus route 953, and eliminating ski racks on busses. These changes began on Nov. 23. 

The Bingham Junction stop is along Route 972. With the elimination of this stop, one-way bus trips are anticipated to increase from 61 trips on weekdays, 65 trips on Saturdays, and 60 trips on Sundays to 79 trips each day of the week. This would be an increase of 121 trips per week going toward the canyons, serving the Big Cottonwood Canyon. “That could take 150 cars off the road,” Perez said. 

With the elimination of the Bingham Junction stop, UTA will be adding more trips going up the canyon and more drivers. “They will have trips all day long,” Becker reported. 

In addition, the Little Cottonwood Canyon Park and Ride Lot on 4385 Little Cottonwood Canyon Road will not be served by Route 953 and Route 994 as part of UTA’s congestion mitigation revisions. “The busses have issues turning left,” Perez said. “UTA has provided us a lot of data and is confident that the 9400 South 2000 East Park and Ride can accommodate the new demand.” 

The Little Cottonwood Canyon Park and Ride lot will now be reserved for carpooling. 

Bus Route 953 runs from Midvale to Snowbird and Alta Ski Area. UTA is looking to provide some additional service on this route. “This is really where the epicenter of your congestion in the community is,” Perez said. 

UTA hopes to increase this route from 17 trips on weekdays and 23 trips on weekends to 35 trips seven days of the week. This would be an increase of about 114 trips per week going up the canyon. With some rough math, Perez estimated that this would average to 4,400 new passenger rides per week. 

“We had a lot of excitement for the ski resorts,” Perez said. “In my short time in CWC, I haven’t seen the ski resorts get excited about something like this.” 

In addition to the routing changes, UTA will be removing ski racks from their busses. “Now, everyone will be holding their skis,” Perez said. 

 “We will be educating people this year on other parking lots they can go to outside the mouth of the canyon. There will be a big effort to send people to other parking lots that have the capacity to do so,” Perez said.