Wasatch Canyons Transportation & Lands Solutions Today and Tomorrow
Our intensively used and loved Central Wasatch Mountains have reached a crisis point in transportation: the roads have become unacceptably clogged, especially on snowy winter days, too often leaving motorists stranded for hours trying to get up or down Big Cottonwood Canyon or Little Cottonwood Canyons.
These transportation issues have been worsening for decades and the subject of plans and studies without implementation until recently. In the 2017 Utah Legislative Session, the state appropriated more than $60 million and directed the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) to complete decision making and implement actions to address Little Cottonwood Canyon problems. UDOT embarked on an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in 2018. In early 2019, UDOT has revised its EIS to focus on immediate improvements in Little Cottonwood Canyon and asked the Central Wasatch Commission to co-lead an effort to look at ancillary issues like parking, trailheads, restrooms, tolling, coordination with decisions needed for both Little Cottonwood Canyon and Big Cottonwood Canyon, and the long-term solutions for transportation in the Central Wasatch Mountains. While that work is underway and scheduled to be completed in 2021, immediate short-term solutions that will make a noticeable impact on the road congestions will be implemented beginning in 2019.
The transportation solutions for the Central Wasatch Mountains cannot be implemented in a vacuum. These mountains serve many valuable purposes: they are the primary source of water and watershed for more than 500,000 people in the Salt Lake Valley. They also are more heavily used than all of Utah’s National Parks combined. It was the consensus of Mountain Accord that addressing transportation solutions had to occur in the context of impacts on lands and resources. While a wide range of governments and interests came to the Mountain Accord process believing that transportation or lands and resource protection were the most important issues to be addressed, by the end of that two-year effort, all parties agreed that both lands and resource protection and transportation problems needed immediate and proactive action.
This comprehensive approach to the Central Wasatch Mountains is critical to solving transportation problems. A federal legislative proposal, the Central Wasatch National Conservation and National Recreation Area Act, addresses the federal issues, particularly around sensitive public and private lands that have been the subject of decades of conflict. Included in that legislation is support for transportation solutions and the removal of some obstacles in federal law to possible transportation actions. Mountain Accord called for immediately pursuing Congressional action for lands and transportation solutions.
Actions underway by UDOT and the Central Wasatch Commission with its partners are expected to provide short-term relief to traffic congestion and a clear, long-term path to enable the millions of visitors and Utah’s ski resorts to avoid the worst of the Wasatch Canyons’ traffic woes. Included in the actions on the immediate horizon are intersection improvements to improve traffic flows, increased bus service for convenience and reducing single-occupant vehicles, increased traffic and public safety enforcement, and parking lots and management. In the medium term, UDOT is considering avalanche sheds in Little Cottonwood Canyon, additional parking at Canyons entrances, restrooms at trailheads, removal of on-road parking with increased enforcement, tolling, and further road improvements in the rights of way to move traffic more freely. Analysis to date suggests a combination of these changes will significantly address the short-term traffic problems in Little Cottonwood Canyon and Big Cottonwood Canyon.
In the long term, transportation issues that involve the Wasatch Front and the Wasatch Back comprehensively offer exciting options that need to be further evaluated with intensive public input – and then implemented. So many options have been presented by the public, from trains to dedicated bus service and aerial systems. As part of the Cottonwood Canyons Transportation Action Plan that will be conducted in the next year, UDOT and the Central Wasatch Commission will work with the best experts available and the public to arrive at a preferred approach to be implemented in conjunction with the short- and long-term actions.
All of these transportation solutions for the Central Wasatch Mountains will occur in the context of a spectacular and valuable land and resource place; protecting watershed is an inviolate value; balancing the recreational issues is what makes these mountains so special and unique; and learning and acting within the long-term resource protections are critical to keeping the Central Wasatch Mountains the treasure it is today. Without taking action on the federal designation while pursuing transportation solutions will diminish the chances that our future generations will continue to enjoy the Central Wasatch Mountains.