Achieving transportation solutions for the Central Wasatch Mountains is a major goal of Mountain Accord. Multiple studies were conducted before, under Mountain Accord, and subsequently that analyzed local and regional transportation issues. Building on the work by Mountain Accord, UTA, Wasatch Front Regional Council, and UDOT, the Central Wasatch Commission (CWC) has coordinated among jurisdictions and engaged the public to seek consensus for a proposed mountain transportation system in the Central Wasatch Mountains region through the Mountain Transportation System initiative.
The CWC began the year-long Mountain Transportation System process in early 2020 to further refine and develop the transportation principles in the Mountain Accord. Over the course of 2020, the Central Wasatch Commission aimed to arrive at a proposed comprehensive year-round transportation system that includes the Salt Lake Valley, Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, Parleys Canyon, and connections to the Wasatch Back. Stakeholders and the public were invited to engage at every juncture during this process, beginning with a public comment period on the initial scope, goals, and attributes of a Mountain Transportation System and continued with the Mountain Transportation System Expert Panel on Friday, September 18th, 2020 and a subsequent 30-day public comment period on the MTS Alternatives Report, which was released on Friday, September 18th, 2020.
The Central Wasatch Commission held a public comment period from February 7th — March 1st, 2020. 1,223 comments were received from 366 individuals on the scope, goals, and attributes of a Mountain Transportation System. Those categories were further categorized into about 100 sub-topics.
A Mountain Transportation System Expert Panel
As part of its Mountain Transportation System (MTS) initiative, the Central Wasatch Commission hosted an expert panel on Friday, September 18th 2020. Panelists included Laura Briefer, Director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities, Carolyn Gonot, Executive Director of the Utah Transit Authority, Ned Hacker, Director of Operations and Special Projects with the Wasatch Front Regional Council, Chris Cushing, a Principal with the SE Group, and Martin Ritter, CEO at Stadler US. Following an introduction from Salt Lake County Mayor and Co-Chair of the Central Wasatch Commission, Jenny Wilson, the panelists discussed the major transportation alternatives under consideration through the CWC’s Mountain Transportation System initiative: mountain bus service expansion, an aerial system, and a rail system. Potential impacts on the watershed correlated with respective modes and alternatives were addressed throughout the event. Members of the public were invited to participate in the panel event by submitting questions specific to the Mountain Transportation System for the panelists to consider.
The expert panel initiated the second public comment period the Central Wasatch Commission opened as part of the Mountain Transportation System initiative. From February 7th – March 1st, 2020, 1,223 comments were received from 366 individuals on the scope, goals, and attributes of a Mountain Transportation System. Those comments helped shape the Commission’s recommendations for the priorities for a regional mountain transportation system serving both the Wasatch Front and Back: namely, a regional mountain transportation system should be efficient, safe, reliable while reducing traffic congestion, incentivizing transit use, and protecting the watershed, wilderness, and viewshed.
The Central Wasatch Commission’s Mountain Transportation System Alternatives Report Public Comment Period
The expert panel on the 18th initiated the second public comment period the Central Wasatch Commission has opened as part of the Mountain Transportation System initiative. The Central Wasatch Commission opened a 30-day public comment period starting on September 18th, 2020 and ending on October 18th, 2020.
A Mountain Transportation System Summit Virtual Event, November 2020
The Central Wasatch Commission’s Mountain Transportation System initiative culminated over a two-day virtual summit on November 13th and 14th 2020. The Commission invited the public to attend the summit for discussion of the transportation alternatives outlined in the Mountain Transportation System Draft Alternatives Report.
The Commission invited the public to attend the Summit for an overview of the Mountain Transportation System process to date, an overview of the MTS objectives and attributes, and discussion of the transportation alternatives outlined in the Mountain Transportation System Draft Alternatives Report. An overview of the findings from the Build your own Mountain Transportation System public engagement tool, the findings from the public comment periods opened over the course of this year, and feedback gathered at the October CWC Stakeholders Council meeting were also be provided over the two-day event.
The Central Wasatch Commission MTS Mode Education Sessions
Following the MTS Summit in the Fall of 2020, the CWC Board moved to host “education sessions” specific to each of the transportation modes outlined in the MTS draft alternatives report — an expanded bus system, a rail system, and an aerial/gondola system. These education sessions were scheduled for the beginning of 2021. You may access the full recording of each of those education sessions below.
During the March 1, 2020 board meeting, Commissioners were presented with an evaluation matrix that CWC staff used to grade each of the Little Cottonwood Canyon EIS transportation alternatives against the attributes and objectives identified during the Mountain Transportation System public scoping process that took place in early 2020.
Mountain Transportation System Commissioner’s Summit: March 19th, 2021
As part of its Mountain Transportation System (MTS) initiative, the Central Wasatch Commission hosted a virtual Commissioner’s Summit on Friday, March 19th 2021. The public was invited to attend the Summit during which Commissioners reviewed what was presented during the public “transportation mode education sessions” that took place earlier that year, as well as the work that had taken place to-date on the CWC’s Mountain Transportation System initiative.
The Commissioner’s Summit on March 19th served as a work-session for Commissioners to continue towards a recommendation for a regional mountain transportation system.
The Central Wasatch Commission Issues Pillars for Transportation Solutions in the Central Wasatch Mountains
The Central Wasatch Commission Board released the “Pillars for Transportation Solutions in the Central Wasatch Mountains” document, which approaches transportation solutions for the Central Wasatch Mountains. The opinion considers visitor use capacity, watershed protection, traffic demand management and parking strategies, a year-round transit service, and integration into the broader regional transportation network, as well as the overall and long-term goal of protection of critical areas in the Central Wasatch Mountains through federal legislation, the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act (CWNCRA).
Central Wasatch Commission Chair and Summit County Council member, Cristopher F. Robinson said, “The elements outlined in the Pillars for Transportation Solutions in the Central Wasatch Mountains document are essential for any successful approach for a mountain transportation system. “The Pillars” document represents the consensus opinion of the Central Wasatch Commission Board after months of study and consideration of the topic.”
Pillars for Transportation Solutions in the Central Wasatch Mountains
In connection with UDOT’s Little Cottonwood Canyon Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), we, the undersigned commissioners (Commissioners) of the Central Wasatch Commission (CWC), hereby state the following.
For over two years, CWC has actively engaged in assessing the foundational elements of the upcoming Draft EIS and successful solutions for transportation in the Central Wasatch Mountains. Throughout that process, each Commissioner has invested heavily in studying and reviewing objectives and options regarding the complex decisions surrounding solutions to the transportation and preservation challenges facing Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) and the Central Wasatch Mountains. Although our work in this critical area is not yet complete, we have decided to issue this statement in the interest of sharing some observations we have at this time.
The Commissioners are unified in the opinion that “doing nothing” regarding the challenges facing the Central Wasatch Canyons is not a viable solution. In addition, although we are not yet fully united on a preference for a particular transportation mode, we continue to work toward arriving at consensus. In the meantime, we have come to agreement on a set of “pillars” that we believe should be considered and implemented in connection with the eventual transportation solution. These broad principles are consistent with the original intent of the Mountain Accord, and we believe should be applied to whatever transportation mode is ultimately recommended in UDOT’s Record of Decision.
Visitor Use Capacity
The transportation alternatives being evaluated in the EIS have the potential to significantly increase the quantity of visitors accessing LCC, and what they do when they visit. All of these alternatives pose a risk of “over-use” of LCC, which could result in negative environmental, public safety and water resource consequences. Additionally, over-use could negatively impact the visitor experience for both tourists and locals who seek to enjoy recreation and nature from unmanaged crowds.
These concerns have been raised repeatedly by the public, various groups, and elected officials during the EIS process, but the limited scope of the EIS’s stated “purpose and need” has not allowed UDOT the opportunity to fully consider these issues. To appropriately address the risks, we believe a corresponding visitor use strategy needs to be identified and implemented to complement any existing management plans.
Protection of the fragile environmental conditions of the Central Wasatch Mountains is the highest priority for the communities that rely on these Mountains for watershed and water supply. Any transportation solution for LCC should minimize and mitigate negative environmental impacts, including irreversible damage to the watersheds that provide precious drinking water to more than 450,000 people in the Valley and in the LCC itself.
Traffic Demand Management, Parking and Bus (or other Transit) Strategies
The Commissioners favor the implementation of a set of traffic management strategies that address both traffic impacts on the roads accessing Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, as well as the roads within these Canyons. In addition, consideration of expanded bus (or other transit) service and parking management outside of the Canyons is critical, regardless of the transportation mode ultimately selected for LCC.
Management strategies outside of the Canyons include providing parking in dispersed locations and improved bus (or other transit) service. The Commissioners also favor appropriate roadway improvements along Wasatch Boulevard. Canyon traffic management options include variable tolling, limited access for single occupancy vehicles, carpool programs, and the reduction of on-road parking. These Canyon strategies should be utilized immediately as a “first phase” of the final EIS alternative implementation, i.e., even before a long-term LCC transportation mode is designed and constructed. None of the proposed transportation alternatives in the EIS will be fully effective without corresponding traffic demand management, expanded regional parking, and bus (or other transit) strategies.
Integration into the Broader Regional Transportation Network
Understanding that the EIS is limited from a geographic perspective to a narrow focus on LCC and its immediate surrounding area, a broader, more holistic approach should be used when implementing solutions for traffic issues related to LCC. To that end, consideration should be given to the integration of any LCC-oriented system with transportation issues attendant to Big Cottonwood Canyon and the broader valley-wide transportation network. To justify the cost from a public benefit perspective, a large-scale infrastructure investment that serves a singular purpose (i.e., alleviating traffic congestion issues affecting LCC) should be accompanied by broader service and infrastructure investment in other areas of the valley. As a result, we support the exploration of the idea of transit micro-hubs in areas throughout the valley as gathering places for visitors and residents to catch transit.
Year-Round Transit Service
The Commissioners consider year-round transit service to destinations in the Canyons a priority, including dispersed recreational opportunities, and other dispersed recreational opportunities in the surrounding areas (such as areas along the foothills). The existing LCC EIS only considers winter, peak transit service.
Long-Term Protection of Critical Areas Through Federal Legislation
Transportation improvements for LCC should be coupled with improved land and natural resource protection. The ultimate transportation solution should be conditioned upon the passage of federal legislation (the Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act). This coupling of federal legislation to transportation is necessary given the delicate balance that was central to the Mountain Accord agreement, based on four principal tenets: transportation, economy, recreation, and environment.