Possible regional transit solutions revealed — including possible Brighton-PCMR connection
Standing at the top of the Jupiter lift at Park City Mountain Resort, the base area of Brighton Resort lies less than 2 miles to the west. The PCMR base, on the other hand, is about twice as far away to the northeast, with a Wasatch ridgeline between the skiers and riders coming from the Wasatch Back and those who trek up the Cottonwood canyons from the Wasatch Front.
For decades, ski bums, industry insiders and elected officials have discussed, in one form or another, connecting the Wasatch Front and Wasatch Back ski areas, but amid opposition from conservation groups, backcountry users and others, the Cottonwood canyons ski areas remain unlinked to PCMR. In the winter, when Guardsman Pass is closed, it takes at least an hour to drive the 45 miles between base areas.
There are signs that the status quo is becoming untenable, however. Traffic in the Cottonwood canyons continues to worsen, with officials increasing bus service last year and Solitude Mountain Resort charging for parking in efforts to reduce the number of cars heading up Big and Little Cottonwood canyons on a powder day.
And officials in Summit County and Park City have been striving to implement a costly bus rapid transit system and a network of park-and-ride lots to alleviate choking traffic congestion on the two main roads into town, especially on peak skier days.
It was against this backdrop that the Central Wasatch Commission Friday revealed three options for the mountain transportation system it is trying to create with a view to regional solutions for the similar problems affecting users on both sides of the Wasatch Range. One alternative includes expanded bus service, another offers a train system and the third uses aerial connections like gondolas.
Like alternatives presented earlier this year by the Utah Department of Transportation for Little Cottonwood Canyon, the price tags range into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The announcement kicked off a 30-day public comment period that ends Sunday, Oct. 18. Comments are being accepted at cwc.utah.gov, where visitors can find more information about the alternatives.
In introductory remarks Friday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson warned that the central Wasatch Range is in danger of being “loved to death” as the number of users — and their cars — continues to increase.
Salt Lake County is one of 10 member jurisdictions in the Central Wasatch Commission, along with Salt Lake City, Summit County, Park City and the Utah Transit Authority.
After years of discussions about the same issues, UDOT’s announcement of ambitious proposals for Little Cottonwood Canyon earlier this year appears to have prompted some forward momentum.
UDOT’s work includes three alternatives focused on expanding busing or creating aerial connections. It is set to release a draft environmental impact statement in the spring and to complete the project to select transit improvements by the end of 2021.
The Central Wasatch Commission is endeavoring to broaden the scope of the project to include regional solutions for Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, the Interstate 80 corridor through Parleys Canyon and to support projects being pursued on S.R. 224 in the Snyderville Basin.
A key difference between UDOT and the Central Wasatch Commission is money: UDOT can decide which project to pursue and offer funding, while the commission’s goal is to come up with a consensus plan and then solicit the aid of governmental entities that can pay for it, like the Wasatch Front Regional Council, UDOT or federal partners.
On Friday, the commission also revealed three “sub alternatives” that can work with any of the main options, including a tunnel between Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, a gondola between the Alta and Brighton base areas and, perhaps most interestingly for the Wasatch Back, a gondola between the Brighton and PCMR base areas.
Summit County elected officials have been ambivalent about the commission’s work, indicating that the benefits of increasing access to Park City via the Cottonwood canyons are unclear, at best.
PCMR owner Vail Resorts declined to comment directly on the proposition of connecting Brighton and PCMR, instead saying it is closely following the commission’s progress.
“(We) are very supportive of efforts to improve long term planning for transit and transportation to the mountains, including along the I-80 corridor,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to The Park Record.
Park City Mayor Andy Beerman supports the commission’s mission in seeking regional solutions to transportation issues and said that the alternatives discussed Friday deserve further study.
As for a link with the Wasatch Front, Beerman said that the Park City community has roundly rejected a tunnel connection to the Cottonwood canyons, a point that Summit County Council Chair Doug Clyde has also made.
But Beerman said the community might be open to aerial connections and that the idea warrants discussion.
Commission Chair Chris Robinson, who is also the longest-tenured Summit County councilor, said the problems getting people into and out of the Wasatch Range have become untenable.
“The do-nothing option, it is a choice, but it’s not a very good one,” he said in an interview. “… We’re trying to put the options out on the table to try to assess where the consensus may lie.”
Summit County councilors have suggested that further connection with the Wasatch Back might actually harm the county as users wouldn’t have to stay overnight — and spend their money — in the area.
“Are we letting some of our golden eggs up here roll down the Cottonwood canyons?” Robinson said of that viewpoint.
Efforts at regional solutions for these thorny issues have largely failed with the number and diversity of stakeholders proving unwieldy. The Central Wasatch Commission reached what can be seen as a high-water mark in the mid-2010s in pursuing federal legislation for land protections, securing the buy-in of resorts, conservationists and backcountry users — groups that often have competing interests.
But that coalition fell apart after the federal legislation was significantly changed and lost momentum in Washington, prompting the commission to reboot its efforts earlier this year.
Robinson likened the reset to putting the land-conservation goals “on the simmer heat” while the commission refocused on transportation issues. Ultimately, he’d like to see the two goals proceed in tandem, but there is now time pressure to define a regional transportation solution.
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An aerial transit system linking key destinations within Park City would cost more than $60 million to build and more than $3 million annually to operate and maintain, a study has found.