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Canyon transportation draft plans coming this summer: with or without local municipality feedback

Apr 07, 2021 11:09AM ● By Cassie Goff

One of the transportation alternatives UDOT prefers is a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon. (Utah Department of Transportation)

By Cassie Goff | [email protected]

Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon traffic remains a priority for the Utah State Legislature as they continue to allocate money to transportation improvements. Feeling the pressure from the State Legislature, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) plans to release a draft of a transportation alternative for Little Cottonwood Canyon this summer, using data from the Environmental Impact Survey (EIS) for Little Cottonwood Canyon. A final version will be published before the end of the year. 

Knowing there’s no stopping UDOT as they will push forward with or without feedback, the Central Wasatch Commission (CWC) has been trying to build consensus for a transportation alternative in order to provide UDOT with a recommendation. Many of the commissioners serving on the CWC have gone back to their respective councils asking for input.

“If we want to have input on the EIS in Little Cottonwood Canyon, we need to do that now. That’s where the legislature has its focus,” said CWC Transportation Committee Chair and Mayor of Brighton Dan Knopp.

The Central Wasatch Commission (CWC) is a participating agency with the EIS and communicates with UDOT regularly. “We provide feedback and hope to continue to do so. We represent the 10 adjacent communities (Salt Lake County, Summit County, Park City, Salt Lake City, Cottonwood Heights, Millcreek, Sandy, the Town of Alta, Brighton, Snowbird and the Utah Transit Authority (UTA)) and our outlook is a little broader. We want our recommendation to be thoroughly vetted,” said CWC Deputy Director Blake Perez.

In determining a recommendation for UDOT’s EIS, the CWC has to consider one of its main goals: to create a regional transportation plan for the canyons. Their goal is to have a Mountain Transportation System (MTS) focusing not only on suitable transportation alternatives for winter (peak) season, but all seasons. 

“The CWC hopes to take a regional and combination approach to transportation in the canyons. It needs to be a comprehensive plan with land use policy,” Perez said. 

For the past two years, the CWC has been scoping, drafting, and taking feedback for canyon transportation alternatives. They have been learning about various modes of transportation from experts who explained the strengths and weaknesses of various transportation alternatives. The CWC has learned about trains, roads, tolling, reduced parking, busses, bus feeders, cog rail, and gondolas, to name a few. 

“Our study focus is broader and consensus driven. We pulled in different experts from across the board,” said CWC Executive Director Ralph Becker. 

One of the main goals for many entities focusing on canyon transportation is to get as many cars off the canyon roads as possible. In 2050, 3,200 people are expected in the canyon, per hour, on what would be one of the busiest days of the year.  

“We want to make sure a third of those people are on transit.” said Perez. “The magic number is shifting 1,000 people per hour to a transit option in about 30 years.”

“We are looking to spend $500 billion on a solution for a few days,” recapped Cottonwood Heights Councilmember Christine Mikell. “If we are going to do it, we should do it right the first time.”

On March 2, after presenting the above information to the Cottonwood Heights City Council, Perez and Knopp shifted their focus to discussing Wasatch Boulevard. 

“Cottonwood Heights is the city between the canyons and we value the (3,500) residents who live on Wasatch Boulevard. They specifically are feeling the impact of the canyon traffic year round,” said Perez.

Mikell responded, “We have to come up with a decision for the EIS and it feels like throwing paint against the wall. You’re looking for a decision from us in April. I’m trying to understand how I, personally representing the most impacted district for this whole plan, could possibly make a determination within that time frame.”

“We have to start somewhere,” Knopp said. “We have been working on this for 30 years and it looks like it’s time to start with the EIS.”  

“I don’t understand how one agency like UDOT can push through after committing to us they aren’t going to look at parking lots across Wasatch Boulevard. And suddenly one of their preferred solutions is a parking garage at La Callie with a gondola. They are looking at a long-term solution by 2050. We should be trying to look at short- and medium-term solutions,” Mikell continued.  

On March 19, the Commissioner Summit was held from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m. in an attempt to build consensus among the CWC commissioners. 

Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities Director Laura Briefer was asked to speak about the watershed protections. “It’s a critically important element as it serves a 100,000 people in Sandy and outside areas. The biggest risk to water quality in the canyons is sanitation and development.”

“I’m a proponent of taking an incremental approach and studying again,” continued Briefer. “We should do something we can actually swallow, manage, and pay for.” 

Salt Lake County Councilmember Jim Bradley voiced a concern that many other commissioners echoed, “Is this for economic development and tourism or is it for quality of life? We have to satisfy quality of life issues with whatever approach we take. Water quality and traffic are concerns. I care less about entertaining tourists. I am concerned about the people who live here.” 

“For transportation solutions, getting cars off the road is a transformative system. It’s social as people are going to learn how to change their behavior to get out of their cars. That takes a long time,” Briefer said. 

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson voiced concern over the process as she did not feel like she could ask for a recommendation from her council without enacting a bias. 

Around 11:30 a.m., realizing a consensus would not be reached before noon, a few commissioners voiced their frustration. 

“I had hoped we could move this forward with more consensus than we have,” said Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini. 

“I’m sad we are this far apart from this,” said Brighton Mayor Knopp. “We are not getting anything done here and I just wasted two years of my life.” 


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