UDOT weighing five alternatives for Little Cottonwood Canyon trafficJan 05, 2021 10:41AM ● By Josh Wood
SR 210 quickly fills beyond capacity when the snow falls. (Joshua Wood/City Journals)
By Joshua Wood | [email protected]
The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) has narrowed the list of potential solutions for traffic congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon to five remaining alternatives. Public input helped add two options to the list, and now UDOT will move forward to evaluate the various impacts of each option to determine the final course of action.
A growing problem for residents, resorts and skiers
The problem is well known to most residents in the area, particularly skiers and people who live near the canyons. Traffic up and down Little Cottonwood Canyon on SR 210 is fraught with congestion. This is especially the case on snow days when thousands of skiers head up the canyon in pursuit of fresh powder.
“The road is the worst when skiing is the best,” said Dave Fields, president and general manager of Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort. “It’s super frustrating for locals, destinations and our employees.”
There are many issues that contribute to traffic congestion in the canyon. The two-lane SR 210 can no longer accommodate the sheer volume of vehicles traveling up and down the canyon without significant delays. On days with fresh snowfall, buses have been unable to carry the load at their current capacity. Traffic also gets stopped when ill-equipped cars cannot handle the slick canyon roads.
Five proposed courses of action
UDOT has worked on multiple potential solutions to snarled canyon traffic. The process has included town hall meetings, public comment periods and a continually refined list of options. In summer 2020, UDOT opened a public comment period for residents to offer input on a list of three options.
“We got 6,500 public comments,” said Josh Van Jura, UDOT project manager for the Little Cottonwood Canyon Environmental Impact Statement. “That shows just how passionate people are about the project.”
Among those 6,500 public comments were suggestions for 19 new alternatives. From those suggestions, UDOT found two that were mentioned repeatedly. After taking time to analyze the viability of those suggestions, UDOT added the pair to the final list of options. “We thought it was something worth looking at to see if it makes sense,” said John Gleason, public information officer at UDOT. “That’s valuable input that they can provide and introduce ideas we hadn’t considered.”
Following the public comment period, the final five alternatives under consideration are:
Enhanced bus services
This alternative would add more busing capacity without added road capacity to SR 210. It would involve a total of 24 buses running up the canyons each hour carrying 1,008 people per hour during peak times. The price tag for enhanced busing would be an estimated $334 million in capital costs and $10.3 million in operating and maintenance costs each winter.
Enhanced bus with roadway widening
The second alternative explored by UDOT involved adding roadway capacity along with enhanced bus services. Bus volume would be the same with 24 buses running during peak hours. A shoulder lane would be added for buses, which would cut travel time up the canyon from 46 to 37 minutes. Capital costs would be an estimated $481 million with $8.3 million in operating and maintenance costs each winter.
The third option presented by UDOT prior to last summer’s public comment period involved a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon with bus service from area mobility hubs. It would involve 30 gondolas per hour during peak hours carrying 1,050 people per hour. Capital costs are estimated at $546 million with $8.3 million in annual operating and maintenance costs.
La Caille gondola
One of the two transit alternatives added to the final list following the public comment period features a gondola line beginning at a base station on the La Caille property near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. The capacity would be similar to the other gondola option but would feature more parking at the station. It would carry capital costs of $576 million and $6.9 million in annual operating and maintenance costs.
La Caille cog rail
The second alternative added following the public comment period would also originate at the La Caille property but would feature a cog rail, which is a steep grade railway with a toothed rack rail between the rails for added traction and climbing ability. The project would feature cog vehicles running every 15 minutes during peak hours carrying 1,050 people per hour. The project’s capital costs would run an estimated $1.05 billion with annual operating and maintenance costs of $6.3 million.
Evaluating the impacts of each alternative
Now that UDOT has defined its final list of five Little Cottonwood Canyon transit alternatives, it has begun work on a draft environmental impact statement. The report is expected to be completed by the summer of 2021.
“Of course the natural environment is so important,” said Van Jura of UDOT. “We’re looking at water quality impacts, wildlife impacts. We’re talking about a water source for hundreds of thousands of people, plus a scenic byway with a natural environment to consider.”
Former Sandy City Councilman Chris McCandless is a fan of the La Caille gondola alternative. He has invested in the property that would serve as the site of the gondola base station if UDOT selected that gondola option. “I recognized that property as a good base station possibility,” McCandless said. “You have to look at human driving habits and the ability to get there as fast as they can. Park at the station, then take the gondola.”
UDOT must balance the many factors that will go into the project. Two of the biggest factors include the environmental impact and the cost of the project. “Both money and impacts will be taken into consideration,” Van Jura said. “As stewards of public money, we have to consider that as well.”
As it prepares the coming environmental impact statement, UDOT will have to consider the impacts of widening the road, building a rail or constructing a gondola line. From a cost standpoint, the cog rail has the highest estimated price tag at over $1 billion, while enhanced busing without additional roadway capacity has the lowest estimated cost at $334 million.
While enhanced busing has the lowest projected cost, it also has its detractors. “I believe that you could add twice as many buses and you still haven’t come close to moving enough people,” said Fields of Snowbird. “What we need is a long-term solution that addresses the challenge.”
If the over 6,500 public comments from last summer serve as any indication, the project’s ultimate direction impacts a lot of people who feel strongly about the outcome. “A lot of people who are moving here come for the access to recreation,” Fields said. “More people want to have that experience.”
With more people heading up the canyons of the Wasatch Front, decisions regarding the area’s future infrastructure will have a lasting impact. It will impact the millions of people who visit the canyons each year. It will impact hundreds of thousands of people who depend on water running down the canyons. It will also impact wildlife and habitat already under stress from development.
“At this point, all of the alternatives are on equal ground,” Van Jura said. “There’s no advantage right now. We’ll start to see the advantages and disadvantages with the impacts of each. We’ll look at the whole picture.”