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Here's how Big Cottonwood Canyon's transportation woes could be fixed

A long line of skiers and snowboarders wait to board a red bus, while snowdrifts cover the foreground and snow falls from the sky.
Francisco Kjolseth
The Salt Lake Tribune
Skiers and snowboarders line up for the ski bus along Wasatch Blvd. near Big Cottonwood Canyon as the Salt Lake Valley gets covered in snow on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

Following a winter of heavy snowfall, closed roadways and frequent traffic jams, local officials now have a plan on paper on how best to address transportation woes in one of Salt Lake’s busiest recreation areas — Big Cottonwood Canyon.

After a months-long study, the Central Wasatch Commission (CWC) released its mobility action plan last week, which outlines how it believes the traffic woes could best be solved. The CWC is an intergovernmental agency made up of city, county and state entities with the goal of sustainability along the Wasatch Front.

The big take away from the plan is the need to reduce the number of cars on the winding road through the canyon — which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been bumper to bumper with other cars this winter or struggled to find a parking spot at trailheads in the summer.

The CWC plan stresses the need to, “shift from cars to transit by increasing transit service,” and “improve transit reliability,” to and through Big Cottonwood all year.

Blake Perez, the CWC’s executive director of administration, said the plan has recommendations to improve the canyon ranging from smaller projects like re-striping parking lots, to bigger asks, like proposing the creation of a transit district specific to the Central Wasatch canyons.

The plan calls for different transportation solutions depending on the area, like building larger mobility hubs for buses at the canyon’s ski resorts — Brighton and Solitude — or smaller changes to trailheads to improve their quality.

“I wouldn’t say it’s just buses,” Perez said. “There’s a suite of options that can be pursued depending on the problem that we want to pursue.”

Expanding bus service is not a novel concept, as skiers and snowboarders have been clamoring for more public transit in recent years. This winter, however, the opposite happened — the Utah Transit Authority announced cutbacks to bus routes due to staff shortages. In response, new busing services appeared.

But there are positive developments on the horizon, as the Legislature approved $150 million in funds to address transportation issues in both Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. The issue, however, is it will likely take years for those advancements to come to fruition.

Perez said the timing on the newly-appropriated state money could not be better, as the CWC’s plan lays out ways to improve how people move through Big Cottonwood and spells out how much options cost. Potential tolling is also mentioned in the CWC’s plan, as the $150 million in state funds could be used to implement tolls in both Big and Little Cottonwood.

Perez added the CWC has been working with UDOT for much of the process, and the CWC will be meeting with Salt Lake County leaders and state officials.

“We want to set them up for success with that funding that’s going to be available July 1,” Perez said, referencing the $150 million from the state that will be available at the start of the state’s new fiscal year.

Going forward, the decisions on what to do first will likely rest on Salt Lake County and the state, as UDOT and the Legislature will also be able to make decisions on funding the larger-scale projects outlined in the CWC plan.

“We have done our homework, we have turned it in and we’re really excited about what came out of the BCC (mobility action plan),” Perez said.

In addition to the mobility plan, the CWC also approved funding for several short-term projects this week, including a shuttle from Park City to highly-used trailheads along Guardsman Pass, and a partnership with the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance for a free Saturday ski shuttle next winter for both Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.

Reporter Jacob Scholl covers northern Utah as part of a newly-created partnership between The Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Public Radio. Scholl writes for The Tribune and appears on-air for UPR.