Something is happening to the ski resort canyons just east of Salt Lake City. For the first time, miles-long traffic pile-ups have become almost routine there, and not just on weekends. It can make for an hourlong crawl up the seven miles to Alta.
Heavy traffic was always expected on holidays and prime weekends in both Cottonwood Canyons, but now gridlock appears practically any day the skiing's good. On a recent Friday, officials invited TV cameras to witness a long, snaking line of cars backed up on access roads, inching toward Little Cottonwood Canyon. Resort officials say much of the congestion is from motorists driving alone, and there's still plenty of capacity on the slopes.
The traffic has gotten so bad that a popular weather blogger, Jim Steenburgh of WasatchWeatherWeenies.com, recently veered from forecasting to complain that Little and Big Cottonwood canyons "have always been popular, but this winter, things are completely out of control." He added, "What is new is that this is happening every weekend." Others are comparing it to Denver's notoriously crowded ski traffic on Interstate 70.
A "perfect storm" of events is crowding the Utah mountains this winter, says Mike Grass of Mountain Accord, a planning group of local mayors, government agencies, resorts and environmental watchdog groups. He cited bountiful snowfall after four anemic winters, a parched East Coast drawing more destination skiers to the West, and Salt Lake's booming valley population, now over 1 million. That number is expected to grow to 1.5 million within 35 years, and many of the newcomers seem intent on skiing.
Mountain Accord is calling for a host of transit improvements for canyon service, while the Utah Transit Authority says it's committed to only deploying a few more buses next winter. Existing service is far from ideal. Many skiers find it slow, crowded and, at $4.50, almost twice the regular fare. That may be why only 7 percent of skiers traveling to Salt Lake's four premiere resorts take a public bus, a Ski Utah survey found in 2013. UTA says boardings have since gone up.
To test the transit proposition fully, I lugged a pair of skis onto a train platform in the urban heart of the Salt Lake Valley on a snowy January morning. To other commuters, I was an odd sight. "Hey, where are you going?" asked one in a look of amazement. Only 1 percent of Wasatch skiers start their way to the mountain by light rail, Ski Utah found.
I wanted to test a doorstep commute without any driving to determine if an urban skier could plausibly do it from almost any train station in the valley. Planning was necessary. I had to study a thicket of rail and ski bus schedules for connecting times. Choices were limiting. If I missed some bus connections, I wouldn't be skiing, period. I did find that light-rail transfer credit reduces the premium bus fare, for a net cost of $9 round-trip.
It seemed the right thing to do. Traffic monitors show as many as 1,300 vehicles an hour try to funnel into Little Cottonwood Canyon on busy mornings, with as many as 6,600 making the trip for the day. They not only clog access and canyon roads but add emissions in a valley notorious at times for toxic air. I wanted to avoid getting into my car to drive to a park-and-ride lot at the base of the canyons. That would defeat a pure transit experience.
I took rail to Sandy Civic Center Station, where Bus 992 offered the most direct route with the fewest stops to Alta Ski Area. Other ski buses depart from Mid-Valley, downtown Salt Lake City and, on weekends, the University of Utah. I brought energy bars, an orange and a magazine and left the driving to someone else.
In all, my transit route took about 90 minutes. I can drive to Alta in 30 minutes on clear roads, but I was saving emissions and didn't have to drive in heavy snow. The bus held traction without a slip.
It was jam-packed on the way down. From Alta, the bus makes a tedious detour into congested Snowbird lots, to much complaint from those on board. An hour passed before the few remaining bus passengers arrived at the Sandy rail station, where the Blue Line provides efficient transportation to downtown Salt Lake City.
Light-rail is comfortable, smooth and fast. If only tracks existed up the canyons—a dream of many skiers, but so impossibly expensive that regional planners have all but dismissed it out of hand. Mountain Accord says a tramway couldn't haul enough skiers up the canyon fast enough to make that idea practical. For now, the group is calling for more shuttle buses, incentives for carpooling, and perhaps mandatory parking fees at resorts to discourage motorists.
More buses can seem a half-measure—they can't go faster than stuck traffic. Widening roads for dedicated bus lanes is another idea being tossed around. Mountain Accord says a larger bus fleet is worth deploying, along with more routes and departure lots from more areas of the valley.
My transit experience showed it was possible to ski at Alta without stepping inside a vehicle in the valley, but it wasn't easy. The day started early and ended late, and I had to schlep gear around. I'd do it again when setting off alone for a day of skiing but with little enthusiasm. I'd rather carpool with friends, and then I'd be like the 78 percent of Wasatch skiers who, according to a Ski Utah survey, take a car to the slopes.
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