Comment Period: Upper Mill Creek Canyon Road Improvements Project

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Mill Creek Canyon has long been a beloved refuge for Salt Lake City residents seeking a quick escape to great trails, cool picnicking, challenging Nordic skiing, high-quality road riding and mountain biking, and backcountry skiing. The road above the winter gate, in particular, gets slower, more intimate, and is the gateway to the vast network of trails at the top of the canyon. 

It is this section that the US Forest Service (the FS, which owns the land), Salt Lake County (SLCO, which owns/maintains the road), and the Federal Highways Administration (FHA) chose to focus on for a Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP) grant from the federal government’s gas tax funds.

They were awarded $19 million, and so far, it’s been a 2.5-year process to outline the purpose and need (presented at an open house in December 2021), a first round of design concepts (May 2022) and a second round of designs (June 2023). 

If you’d like to see the entire presentation from the June open house, it’s here (an hour and 20 mins; worth a listen/watch).

The Salt Lake County Office of Regional Development is accepting public comments until Monday, July 10. You can learn more and submit your comments here.

Here are the fundamentals of the latest design:

  • A 24-foot roadway from the winter gate to Elbow Fork, consisting of two 10-foot lanes and a 4-foot bike lane on the uphill side of the road. 
  • A 20-foot roadway from Elbow Fork to Big Water, consisting of two 10-foot lanes and no bike lane.
  • Straightening the road for improving driver sight lines. 
  • Allowance for narrowing of the roadway for sensitive/awkward places such as Thousand Springs and the very top of the canyon.
  • Replacement of the White Bridge about a mile above the winter gate.
  • Shoring up/replacing the road surface to avoid tarmac falling into the creek.
  • In addition to riparian preservation, the overall goal is to enhance access and improve safety for canyon travelers, particularly cyclists and pedestrians, and “improve driver expectations.”
  • Design opportunities for future implementation of a shuttle (stops/unloading zones, turnarounds). 
  • Build retaining walls to keep the road in place and from being overwhelmed by adjacent steep hillsides; the walls would blend in visually and could be up to 8-10′ tall. 
  • Discourage undesignated roadside parking to avoid shoulder and riparian degradation.  
  • Add formal parking spaces at key trailheads (Elbow Fork, Alexander Basin, and Big Water). 

As always, there are good and bad things with this government project. They took the acknowledgment and mitigation of environmental impacts much more seriously this time than they have indicated in the past, and felt like they “struck a balance between the cyclists, motorists, and environmentalists.” (is there a difference?).  

However, a big red flag is the termination of the bike lane with no other consideration for cyclists above Elbow Fork. The rationale provided was that “only some” cyclists ride above Elbow Fork. We are not sure how many “some” is, how they generated this vital statistic, how many “more” cyclists it would take to be more than “some,” and why — if cyclist safety is as much of a concern as they say it is — they are willing to forsake cyclist safety in the upper 3 miles of the canyon. 

Ten feet is a general national standard for lane width — and in this project, it has shrunk from the originally-discussed 11-foot lanes — but it is not a mandate, and 9 feet is an acceptable width according to the FHA.  Most cars are about 6 feet wide, pickups and vans are 6.5-7 feet, and even big trucks are 8 feet wide. 

To be considered and designated a formal “bike lane,” a lane needs to be 4 feet wide, but in the lower canyon — and in Big Cottonwood Canyon, which has seen a lot of work lately — there are “wide shoulders” that are effective bike lanes.

If it’s important to you, suggest narrower auto lanes and wider shoulders that will indeed accomplish their oft-stated goal of increased cyclist safety. 

In the earlier designs, they had introduced some more modern cycling-oriented road designs (no striping at all, which inherently lowers auto speeds, variable-width lanes), but seemed to default to only accommodating cars when presented with the challenge of a narrower roadbed, despite the popularity of cycling up the canyon and cyclist safety being far and away the most common comment from last year’s open house comment period. 

WBA plans to work with the FS to get counts of cyclists over the rest of the summer entering the canyon, at Elbow Fork, and at/near the top of the canyon. 

The road builders are determined to increase safety by widening the lanes and straightening the road, thereby increasing sight lines. But, statistically, there have been virtually no accidents in the upper canyon over the last 30 years. WBA has gotten confirmation from the local Fire Authority that they have no problem with their vehicles going up the canyon as it is.  

Initiating a shuttle bus pilot program was the major recommendation of a 2012 study by some consultants hired by SLCO, but was originally excluded in the context of this project. The fact that not only are aspects and accommodations for the shuttle being included in the latest design but also the FS, in particular, appears to be interested in initiating the lengthy NEPA process associated with adding a shuttle prior to finishing the road project is welcome, and they deserve kudos for this vision. The same goes for adding some much-needed restrooms.  

Construction will be a big deal, and there is talk about closing the entire upper canyon for two summer seasons. It is worth reminding them that there are ways to do partial closures to allow access during construction with thoughtful management.  

The project has moved from being an alarmingly large change to the intimate nature of the canyon to slightly more subdued, but this will be a once-in-a-generation change to the upper canyon. Your comments are critical to reminding the agencies, and consultants who they work for, what the experiences are for people who actually use the canyon. 

So please take the time to submit your comments by the end of the day on Monday, July 10 either via the website’s comment form (it has limited space) or simply send them to millcreekroad@slco.org

Thanks for your activism!


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