Moving Mountains

Seeking a Long-term Solution to Canyon Gridlock

Tom Haraldsen

June 6, 2013

It’s a beautiful February morning. The air is crisp, the sky a brilliant blue, there’s no wind and the resorts are calling your name. So you secure your skis to the car rack; toss your parka, boots and gear into the backseat; grab your sunscreen and you’re off towards the canyons. Everything is going great right up to the moment that you reach the mouth of those canyons. That’s when your plans get changed.

Cars are lined up, traffic is at a standstill. You estimate that you’re at least 90 minutes from even reaching the parking lot of a resort—half your ski day will be over before it begins. So you turn around and head back home, disappointed, but knowing there’s always tomorrow.

Now imagine how that’d feel if you were a tourist in Utah.

Crammed Roadways

That scenario isn’t lost on any of the shareholders of Utah’s recreation and ski industry. Mountain transportation, particularly up both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, and even at times to Park City and Summit County, is often in gridlock during the busy ski days of winter. There are times when it’s equally gridlocked in the summer. And all the shareholders agree that the trouble begins not when recreationists reach the mouth of the canyons—it starts when they get into their cars.

 “I think we all recognize the problems,” says Michael Allegra, general manager for the Utah Transit Authority, which has been spearheading a study about how to alleviate the mountain gridlock dilemma. “There’s an immediate traffic problem—we call it the ‘Red Snake.’ We’re working to find out what can be done to not only help in the short term, but also in the future. Whatever we do in these canyons, it needs to be a 30- to 40-year vision for future generations.”

Though they might have differing answers, ski industry advocates, transportation and tourism officials, and environmentalists are in agreement that the solution lies in getting fewer cars driving into and up to the canyons.

 “When you’re trying to get a couple of million people a year through two or three access points, you’re going to have a problem,” says Carl Fisher, executive director for Save Our Canyons, the citizen advocacy group whose mission statement reads, “Dedicated to protecting the wildness and beauty of the Wasatch Mountains, canyons and foothills.”

 “What we need to do is think regionally,” says Fisher. “How do we get people from Salt Lake City or Park City to their destinations—whether it be summer or winter—without using their vehicles?”      

Visionary—or Myopic?

The area where these shareholders don’t agree is some of the methodologies being considered. One proposal that has drawn a lot of attention is SkiLink, a gondola that would connect the Solitude and Canyons resorts in 11 minutes, and would be the first of its kind in the United States. SkiLink has been vigorously fought by environmentalists who fear it could open up the canyons for a lot of other development.

 “The location is our main concern,” Fisher says, “going through an area that’s proposed for wilderness. At the end of the day, there’s no guarantee when you’re handing over land to private real estate developers that it won’t be further developed. If you look at how The Canyons developed their resort—it’s more of a real estate development with million-dollar homes than a ski area.”

He also says any canyon transportation solution would need to address traffic year round. “We have more visitation in these canyons in the summer than the winter, so building something just for the ski industry is myopic thinking. That’s been our real concern with SkiLink—not looking at the whole puzzle.”

Nate Rafferty, president and CEO of Ski Utah, says there’s a lot of confusion about the inter-connect concept between resorts.

 “The concept of inter-connect is linking seven ski areas and allowing skiers to enjoy different ones,” he says. “There’s a huge opportunity here—no other state could offer a combined 18,000 ski acres. Right now, the largest ski area in North America is at Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, and that’s about 8,000 acres. Vail is maybe 5–6,000 acres. We have to look at the European model and learn a lot about what they do at ski areas that are tried and tested.”

Rafferty has traveled to Zermatt, Switzerland, to study the Swiss model. Zermatt is a resort that is car-free—you can’t drive into the village. Tourists travel by cog train into the town of 6,000 residents, then by gondola to the base of the Matterhorn. During the busy season, the town can host up to 14,000 tourists, with accommodations for all of them.

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