Elected officials split on how integrated Summit County should be with the Cottonwood canyons
State officials are studying transportation solutions for Little Cottonwood Canyon with some cost estimates in the hundreds of millions of dollars, for projects like widening roads, building avalanche sheds or creating an aerial transit system.
The Central Wasatch Commission, which is chaired by Summit County Councilor Chris Robinson, is advocating for a more holistic mountain transit plan with a regional focus so that investment in one option for one canyon doesn’t foreclose future opportunities.
“One of the issues is, should you spend $100 million on snow sheds,” Robinson said. A snow shed essentially provides a roof over a roadway and walls to protect it from an avalanche. “Now snow sheds might be a perfectly good thing if you have rubber-tired transit, or rail going up it. You want to protect it. But if your solution is aerial, then maybe you wouldn’t want to spend it — you’d want to spend your money elsewhere.”
Summit County councilors appeared split at a meeting Wednesday on how involved they’d like the county to be in planning a future transit system and whether to advocate for increasing connections between the Wasatch Back and the Cottonwood canyons through an aerial transit system or other options.
Council Chair Doug Clyde appeared to be the most passionately opposed to linking the areas, calling it “against our interest.”
“Really all this is doing is providing a way for people from the (Cottonwood canyons) to get to Park City or Deer Valley,” he said. “I don’t see that as being any significant advantage to us. What is the point for us?”
The discussion was prompted by the Central Wasatch Commission recently shifting its focus to developing mountain transportation solutions rather than pursuing land conservation through federal legislation. It is asking for public input to shape the scope and goals of a possible transportation system that could encompass both sides of the Wasatch Range.
It’s an opportunity for the county to officially state its priorities and goals for such a system in writing, something County Manager Tom Fisher said hasn’t been done often in the past. Summit County has paid the commission $200,000 since 2013, including $50,000 this year.
Robinson said the commission would like to receive such feedback before March 1, and Fisher indicated that county staff would draft comments using input from Wednesday night’s discussion.
Coming to consensus, however, proved elusive on Wednesday.
Councilors Glenn Wright, Kim Carson and Robinson indicated support for studying different solutions to the traffic congestion that at times plagues Summit County, especially on peak ski days and when snowfall closes the Cottonwood canyons.
They stopped short, however, of advocating for further integration between both sides of the mountains.
“I wouldn’t be opposed at this point to exploring what those options were, but I would be very wary,” Carson said. “I think we have our heads in the sand if we don’t look at all solutions possible to solve our current issues.”
Councilor Roger Armstrong and Clyde appeared to oppose the idea of any further connection, with Armstrong stating that it had the potential to harm Summit County’s interests from both business and environmental standpoints.
“I do struggle with opening up the treasure we have here to more access,” Armstrong said. “Someone would have to articulate a very specific, very measurable, profound benefit our residents would feel.”
Clyde appeared to go further, saying that the Central Wasatch Commission, dating to its origins as the Mountain Accord, has been geared to solutions for the Wasatch Front.
“I think the whole premise is faulty,” Clyde said. “These plans have nothing to do with mountain transportation; they have to do with transportation in Big and Little Cottonwood (Canyon) and Sandy’s future growth.”
Sandy sits at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and its interests have been strongly represented, councilors said. Carson talked about a previous proposal for a train route that would take riders south from the airport to Sandy before heading up to Park City, for example.
Armstrong told of his experience being on a transportation committee in the early days of the Mountain Accord, when a tunnel connection from the Wasatch Front was the “preordained result” despite a lack of support from some of the stakeholders.
Robinson, though, said the Central Wasatch Commission has been around long enough to have transcended the interests of any one jurisdiction. He added that an effective system might enable people to stay in the Park City area and use it to travel to the ski resorts in the Cottonwood canyons.
“The overall problem is we have a group of people that work and play and visit the Wasatch Mountains from all sides. The numbers are growing, they’re not limited to one side or the other, they’re going to both sides and we have difficulty getting them in and out,” he said.
Robinson suggested that, while the cost estimates for transit solutions appear staggering, the commission is optimistic there would be federal grants available for the right project. He also pointed out the conversation is happening against the backdrop of a potential Winter Olympic Games in the region in 2030 or 2034, which could spur investment in infrastructure development.
Clyde, however, expressed doubt about the Central Wasatch Commission being the vehicle for solving Summit County’s transportation woes, saying he had seen little change on the issue since he began following it in the 1980s.
“This whole transportation plan — this whole focus of how do we get people from the airport to Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon, all the rest of that crap — and it pretty much is crap — is all about making Sandy the ski center of the world,” Clyde said. “That’s not our job and that’s not something we should be promoting.”
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