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Share your voice on Little Cottonwood Canyon Transportation Options!

Dear Backcountry Community,

Thank you for your continued support of Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and standing together to protect the balance between our world class ski resorts and backcountry. We are asking you to share your voice and comment on the UDOT (Utah Department of Transportation) LCC (Little Cottonwood Canyon) EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) by July 10, 2020.

After countless hours of research, meetings with various stakeholders, and taking into account data from our member survey, WBA supports: Enhanced Busses without Road Widening. We are encouraging you to do the same. You can read the full statement below.

The deadline to voice your opinion is this week, Friday, July 10, 2020. The ski resorts have asked their customers to support transportation options that we disagree with, which is why we need your help. Please take some time RIGHT NOW by clicking on the link below and leaving a comment voicing your support for Enhanced Busses without Road Widening.

 

Below is the official comment Wasatch Backcountry Alliance has submitted to UDOT, as a part of the LCC Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process. Feel free to use any of the below points and customize based on your own experience and beliefs. Thank you for standing up with us on this very important issue. 

-Your friends at Wasatch Backcountry Alliance

Wasatch Backcountry Alliance Little Cottonwood Canyon EIS Comment

In our comment regarding the original EIS Scope and Need process in May 2018, Wasatch Backcountry Alliance’s comment began with this statement: “Wasatch Backcountry Alliance (WBA) envisions a low cost, low emission, energy efficient year-round multi-modal transportation scenario for improving the current traffic situation in Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC). The system we envision must be capable of providing efficient and predictable service for travel to both developed locations (ski resorts) and to trailheads and other stopping points for dispersed use in LCC. Any improvements being made in LCC should be tied in to a larger transportation system that serves and benefits the entire Central Wasatch.”  To that end, with regard to the current LCC EIS, WBA supports enhanced busing with no widening of Highway 210.

 

WBA firmly believes that before any transportation system is selected, there must be a thorough analysis of the carrying capacity of Little Cottonwood Canyon. This will help establish the volume of people that need to be moved up and down the canyon, which will invariably help determine which transportation system best fits that purpose and need. WBA strongly encourages UDOT to work with other stakeholders, including the US Forest Service and Salt Lake County, to undertake a carrying capacity analysis and to make that part of the current EIS.

 

With regards to the two options that use more buses (extended bus service and widening of the LCC road to accommodate yet-more buses), WBA continues to support the same concept that we stated in our May 2018 Scope and Need comment: “The transportation system should use the best currently available technology to serve all user groups on a year-round basis. WBA believes that the best currently available technology that meets our criteria is a flexible and dynamic fleet of energy efficient buses and vans using a series of transportation hubs.” At this point in time, we do not think that Highway 210 should be widened to accommodate more vehicles, but that having dedicated times for buses and cars with 4 people (ie. 7-9am and 3-5pm) should be more thoroughly explored. 

 

The most-recent EIS document clearly reflects a lot of work done on the part of UDOT, but it also generates many questions and we feel there are some important fundamental flaws that should be addressed. To that point, we have some comments about what we regard as key issues with this EIS:

  • The current EIS does not address the concept of multiple Mobility Hubs other than the one on 9400 South and the one at the Gravel Pit. WBA thinks that the transit system needs to originate at locations around the valley (ie. U of U/Foothill, downtown, airport, WVC, Draper, West Jordan and points farther south, etc.) so that people can access the bus where they live, rather than drive their car to a mobility hub to catch the bus. When faced with this choice, we suspect many people will choose to remain in their cars rather than use the bus. 
  • There is very little discussion of the needs of non-ski resort, dispersed users (in particular with regards to the White Pine trailhead, which has already increased in use to the point where it’s dangerous due to on-highway parking in both summer and winter).
  • We do not see any financial life cycle analysis (capital and operation, maintenance) of any of the options presented over the projected timeframe.  Given that the least-expensive option will come at a cost of ~$100 for every single Utahn, this is relevant). 
  • There is no mention of any interim solutions, and according to a UDOT spokesperson, UDOT has “no idea” what to do in the interim, nor are there any approximate timelines to actually identify what the “interim” is. LCC is facing an acute problem now that will only worsen, and the lack of timelines is a major missing component of the EIS. 
  • There is only token consideration given to the effects of each of the options on the vital LCC watershed, either by construction or ongoing use. 
  • There is very little/no mention of tolling on vehicles, though it is our understanding that the Utah state legislature specifically allocated considerable monies to UDOT to consider tolling, and as noted above, the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance is a proponent of tolling.  
  • The EIS provides no rationale for UDOT’s winnowing of 35 different options to these three.  

 

Based on our review of the EIS, the focus of the document and the tone of the online meetings on June 23-24, despite there being three alternatives in the EIS, it seems that the gondola option is being pushed as the preferred option.  While we recognize that there may be potential benefits of a gondola operation, there are important components of it that we take issue with:

  • Volume – the gondola as proposed will only carry about 1/3 of those people heading up LCC. This means that 2/3 will still be on the LCC road, so how does installing a gondola at cost of ~$400M make any sense if it will not help alleviate the traffic issue currently plaguing LCC and the surrounding Sandy and Cottonwood Heights communities?
  • Summer use – We understand that an important need of the EIS is to address the peak use times during the winter. However, traffic (and parking) in LCC is an issue year-round, and traffic-related issues are not limited to peak/storm periods.  Summertime traffic as it relates to bicyclists needs to be addressed, particularly in the early fall when Snowbird’s two-month long “Oktoberfest” is in full swing, given that event has a large focus on drinking alcohol at the top of a steep windy canyon.  
  • Schedule – Backcountry enthusiasts, employees, and contractors travel the canyon at all hours.  Scheduling gondola availability for only the peak skiing hours transforms it from a transportation solution to a taxpayer-paid ski lift that benefits two private companies that operate largely on public land.  
  • Fees – there was no mention of the potential costs to riders. If fees are prohibitive, the system won’t be utilized. Given the vast majority of people riding a gondola will be going to the ski areas, will the ski areas supplement/offset the cost of the gondola as they currently do with the bus?
  • Roadway use – will vehicles driving up the canyon be tolled?  The state legislature allocated a lot of taxpayer dollars towards the concept of tolling, and creating financial disincentives to drive up the canyon and use the gondola (or any transit system) is imperative. This could also include paid parking in all of upper LCC (ie. starting at Snowbird Entry 1).
  • While fees and schedules could easily be considered TBD details and perhaps that is why they were not included, the gondola’s schedule and fees are essential components to its success. 
  • Highway 210 improvements – there was no mention of improvements to Hwy 210 in addition to the gondola.  For service vehicles, delivery trucks, residents, emergency vehicles, and those who don’t use the gondola, the threats that the canyon represents will still exist. For example, if the gondola is chosen, will any improvements be made to Hwy 210, ie. snowsheds? 
  • UTA buses – there was no mention of bus service; again, perhaps a TBD detail, but given the continued growth in use, there is no doubt that bus service will be an important component as well even if the gondola is chosen given that a majority of people will still be traveling up LCC on the road. 
  • Convenience of travel – the three-step process for getting up the canyon using the gondola (drive your car to one of two intermodal hubs, put on your ski gear  (plus potentially help your kids with their gear) to get on a bus, get off the bus to get on the gondola, and finally get off the gondola to ski, knowing in the back of your mind that you will have to reverse this process in a matter of hours) will create awkwardness at best and a strong disincentive to many at worst.  There needs to be a better way to get people from where they live to the gondola terminal, including a regional transit system from across the SL Valley and potentially additional parking at the gondola itself.   It’s important for UDOT to understand that skiers and other mountain-lovers have a typically-irrational perspective on time/efficiency of access; “Powder Fever” is a real thing, and the prospect of using three modes of transit, taking at least 90 minutes, just to get to the ski area will be a strong dissuasion for many.  
  • Parking/traffic – a bottom terminal at the mouth of LCC will create the same traffic and congestion issues that prompted the closure of the existing parking lot to UTA bus service. When coupled with buses trying to deliver people to the gondola and vehicles traveling up the canyon, could adding the gondola actually have a negative impact on travel?
  • Timing – there was no discussion of the potential timing of gondola implementation beyond a generic goal of the 2050 plan.  The problem is acute now and will only intensify over the next few years. The relative lengths of design/development/construction associated with the gondola vs the other options is important and should be part of an open and transparent process.  
  • Tourism – the concept of increased tourism value was discussed in the EIS; however, this was not identified in the Purpose and Need.  The very thought that the gondola would be marketed as a tourist attraction seems contrary to the purpose of a gondola as it will put more pressure on its capacity, thereby leading to more traffic and congestion issues in the canyon. Additionally, this kind of marketing push flies in the face of the identified Purpose and Need in the EIS (which we think misses the mark as it does not consider the aforementioned need to do a capacity analysis).

 

In addition to the above comments, WBA firmly believes than any transportation solutions being considered must take a much wider view than the current EIS. The fact that Big Cottonwood Canyon is not being considered is a mistake given that what happens in one canyon will have a direct impact on use in the other. It also seems that other key stakeholders, including UTA, have not been consulted as part of the EIS, which would seem to pose immediate issues and risks with implementing any solution.

 

Wasatch Backcountry Alliance has formally been a part of the Mountain Accord and Central Wasatch Commission since the beginning of the former’s process, and its board and members have been engaged in the community for decades prior to that.  We understand the acute need and challenges associated with this process, and hope that our comments will be taken into due consideration to best help craft and create a solution that fits the current and future needs of the Salt Lake Valley residents and those people visiting the area who wish to explore and enjoy the beauty and majesty of the Central Wasatch.

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