Tom Clyde: We’re just not that special
February 13, 2015
What a difference a day makes. After whining about the ski conditions, which are completely acceptable but not perfect this year, there were a couple of exceptional days. I skied Deer Valley, and spent the middle of the day in wonderful slush bumps in Empire Bowl. If you can’t get powder, that’s the next best thing. And then Tuesday, a friend dragged me through every knothole he could find off Ninety-Nine 90 at Canyons. They were advertising five inches of new snow. We all know how that works, but there were, in fact, five inches, and in some places more. It was enough to freshen things up and make an exciting morning of skiing.
On other fronts, the Mountain Accord planning effort is presenting its work on the 24th at the Eccles Center. There has been a lot about it in the paper, and their website is worth looking at. Parts of it make great sense. There are plans for a comprehensive trail system connecting both sides of the Wasatch and the various canyons. There is a proposal to swap Forest Service land for scattered parcels of private land (old mining claims, mostly) in the Cottonwood Canyons. That concentrates the potential development near the existing ski area base facilities, where there are roads and utilities, and removes the potential for hacking new roads into pristine terrain to access the isolated private lands. Those seem like good ideas, and while not new, this planning effort might actually cause them to happen.
But there is a fixation with a railroad transportation system that doesn’t make a lick of sense, even looking 50 years out. The plan is to extend a rail line from the Trax system near I-15 in Sandy, and run it up Little Cottonwood to Alta, then tunnel under to Brighton, then tunnel under again to surface in Park City. It would run on the surface out to Kimball Junction. The idea is to deliver skiers based in Salt Lake to all of the Wasatch resorts, and also serve the year-round commuter needs of Summit County residents and workers who are back and forth between here and Salt Lake.
Anything’s possible. There was a railroad that served the mines in Alta. It was taken out in the 1930s. The D&RG ran up Parleys Canyon, terminating at what is now the Town Lift. Those tracks were taken up in 1946. Bits of the right of way (which needed a bunch of switchbacks to make it over the Summit) are still there, but most of it was devoured by the freeway. So either of those lines seems expensive but plausible.
The tunnel route seems nuts. UTA spent $350 million building the six-mile extension of Trax to the airport. That was about $58 million per mile for a system that is entirely above ground, and largely on existing right of way. The proposed Sandy to Kimball Junction route is about 28 miles. At the 2013 price for the airport line, that’s $1.4 billion, before adding the cost of the tunnels. Tunnels aren’t cheap. We would have to host the next 10 Olympics to milk the Federal Treasury of enough cash to build that system. If you think a $110 lift ticket is shocking, imagine what the round-trip fare for a train ride through the billion dollar tunnels would cost. And then, when you get to the other end, you are at I-15 in Sandy.
Not that there is anything cosmically wrong with Sandy, it’s just that the year-round commuter traffic seems to be heading to downtown Salt Lake or the University. So the proposed rail connection through Sandy would make the commute more than twice as long and prohibitively expensive. You could probably shuttle the skiers by helicopter with the interest payment on that scheme.
Undeterred by logic, we have a delegation in Europe looking at their transportation systems. If you want to learn about quality public transit, Europe is the place to go. They really have it figured out. But what I hope our local officials will learn there is that Switzerland is a tiny country with a lot of people. They have 490 people per square mile compared to Utah’s 35 (that’s from Wikipedia, so it is gospel truth). Mass transit works because there is mass. The multi-billion railroad seems to be a solution to a problem that exists about 60 to 90 days a year. We could fix Kimball Junction several times for a small piece of that.
We skiers are special people, and deserve a lot of attention and resources. But the idea that there is any way to justify a multi-billion railroad to shuttle us to our favorite slopes is just incomprehensible. We’re special, but not that special.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.