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How much would a toll through Big and Little Cottonwood canyons cost?

A line of cars are backed up on a snow packed road in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune
A long line of cars forms near Little Cottonwood Canyon during the snow storm on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

Outdoor enthusiasts could have to pay to access parts of the Cottonwood canyons in the coming years, but the cost per car or person has largely been up in the air until now.

Though the toll amount has yet to be finalized, the cost to drive through Big Cottonwood or Little Cottonwood canyons could be between $25 to $30 per vehicle, according to John Gleason, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Transportation. He added the cost could vary depending on the time of day and day of the week to, “achieve the necessary level of traffic reduction.”

The potential toll amount was first reported by FOX 13, citing statements made by UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras at the annual conference for the Utah Taxpayers Association. Slides from Braceras’s presentation show he gave the conference an overview of the environmental impact statement (EIS) process underway for Little Cottonwood Canyon. The presentation slides also show an estimate of a toll between $25 and $35.

In an email Wednesday, Gleason said transit alternatives will likely have to be less than a toll — which hints about the potential cost to ride the controversial gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“The fare to ride any of the transit alternatives, including the gondola, would need to be substantially less than the price of the toll in order to encourage the use of transit and to provide a low cost alternative for those not able to afford the toll, such as low income canyon users,” Gleason said Wednesday.

Josh Van Jura, the UDOT project manager overseeing the Little Cottonwood EIS, said earlier this year that expanded bus service will need to be in place prior to UDOT starting to enforce tolls. He also said the tolls wouldn’t start at the mouth of the canyon, and likely the only people paying would be people visiting the canyon’s ski resorts.

“We anticipate that the toll would only apply to canyon visitors who are going to Snowbird or Alta,” Van Jura said in March. “So visitors above the White Pine trailhead, and White Pine would not be included.”

More bus services likely won’t be in place for a few years, as Van Jura said he expects it will take around two years to secure more buses and to design and build a new mobility hub. He said in March the improvements could be in place by the 2025-2026 winter season.

The tolling and expanded bus service would be paid for using $150 million in state funds the Utah Legislature approved earlier this year to address the two canyons’ traffic issues.

That state money could also potentially fund projects outlined in a new report from the Central Wasatch Commission on alleviating traffic in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The recommendations range from smaller projects like re-striping parking lots, to bigger asks, like the creation of a transit district specific to the Central Wasatch canyons.

To the south of Big Cottonwood, UDOT is still in the process of finalizing its EIS in Little Cottonwood Canyon. State officials made waves last year after they concluded that the building of an eight-mile-long gondola would be the best option for the canyon. UDOT has said the $150 million wouldn’t be set aside to help pay for the proposed gondola, which is estimated to cost taxpayers around $550 million to build.

Progress on expanded busing and tolling in Little Cottonwood won’t be able to move forward until UDOT issues a final record of decision on its EIS, which is scheduled to happen sometime this summer.

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.