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The Cottonwood Debate, Post 2/3 — Why Neither Current Proposal Is A Best Solution

Posted by Jeff Roche on

The Cottonwood Debate, Post 2/3 — Why Neither Current Proposal Is A Best Solution

This is part two of my consideration of the options Salt Lake City is weighing as solution to the congestion and pollution problems presented by the traffic jams in Little Cottonwood Canyon due to a steady volume of traffic that the canyon cannot sustain (1.2 million annual vehicles, carrying 2.1 million people per year). To read my first installment focusing primarily on the Gondola option, click here. In this post, I’m looking at the issues of both the proposed Gondola solution and the alternate, second, and only other solution on the table right now: expanding the existing Little Cottonwood Canyon Road, SR-210, to four lanes to accommodate more traffic. 

To be clear, I do not support the Gondola and I do not support the current alternate solution of expanding State Road 210 to four lanes. I think both proposed solutions are bad. In these posts, I’m sharing why. But I am not a guy who whines and complains without also putting up a solution for consideration. I touched on that solution at the end of my last post, I will do so again here, and my third post will be dedicated to talking it through in even more detail. I’m doing this because I care deeply about what we decide to do, together, and I believe in the power of voice. That means that this is a conversation, and I welcome your comments. Pass it on even. Let’s keep talking about this so we don’t all get burdened with weight of making a big mistake. 

Let me ask you something. If you were faced with a big, huge problem like this, and you could spend $150 million instead of $500 million, while also achieving a viable solution for improved traffic flow that was 1) less of a visual blight, 2) less environmentally detrimental, and 3) more respectful and equitable to all Utah taxpayers, wouldn’t you do so? Wouldn’t it be your obligation to? Well, we can. I’ll get into more detail on how in my third post in this series but first let me cover the blind spot in the current UDOT proposals.

In the energy industry, there are two big players who develop all future power projects: Public Utilities and IPPs (private energy development companies). The game is determined by the Public Utility, which publishes long-term power plans, and then the play commences. These utility plans take into account the future power needs of a service region to support both population growth and economic growth. The general rule of thumb is that these long-term plans or projections are built on the Absolute. In layman’s terms, they are built on the absolute or max amount of electricity that the grid will need in order to serve all customers in peak electrical load. Utilities do this because it is their public duty to ensure we (the customers) all have power. If there are issues, you see short-term fixes like rolling blackouts, recently used during the California wildfires or the Texas freeze of 2021. If that happens, inevitably, there will follow a whole bunch of political finger-pointing and name-calling and other nastiness. This is too bad. It only takes a little bit of common sense to acknowledge that extreme events can and do happen and they can and do affect power grids. Wildfires burn, freezes freeze, flooding floods, and tornados tornado. Climate changes and it can rage. Move over Hulk, we’ve got a new Marvel character. 

Public planning agencies like the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) have to take a similar approach. When UDOT does a transportation study, they are tasked with making the public investment work effectively for the future planning window. This is a tough task, no doubt, and carries a high investment cost. And in the process, there are winners (interest holders) and losers (eminent domain).

In the case of the expansion proposal for Little Cottonwood Canyon, UDOT is taking into consideration not only the traffic flow patterns of SR-210 but the projected population growth of Metro Salt Lake City. This has brought them to two $500M investment options, both of which are deeply flawed and frankly ridiculous. Why? Because they are using Absolute thinking. Yes, there is a congestion problem in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Is it every day? No. Is it every day in the winter? Not even. So, when does the congestion happen? On days we get 12 inches of fresh powder up high, there will be a traffic jam on SR-210. On weekend days after a few days of light snowfall in the valley when people are freed from their nine-to-five jobs, there will be a traffic jam on SR-210. When it’s Octoberfest at Snowbird on a sunny Fall afternoon, there will likely be a traffic jam on SR-210.

Whether saying so jives with your politics or not, I think everyone can see that climate is changing drastically and rapidly. If you ask any Utah powder hound who has called this place home for the past 20-to-30 years to compare the snowpack over the past decades and then predict what we’ll have in 2030, they’d probably bitch for a while, then tear up, then talk about their plans to sell their 1,500 square foot home for a million dollars and head North where it still snows.

These absolute transportation cases are not matched to an absolute weather case. On one hand you have population growth and stressed infrastructure from this human behavior we can call “I want the Pow.” On the other hand, you have a snowpack that is diminishing year over year and storm patterns that are spreading out further and further. The Gondola or the four-lane highway up Little Cottonwood Canyon is only needed if the snow dumps. In the current 2021-22 ski season, it has snowed 12 inches up there maybe 10 times. What does this mean when this trend continues into the future? We will have an overbuilt four-lane highway or a Gondola running up the canyon that is essentially obsolete the other 355+ days of the year. And we’re to spend $500 million of public money on this? Geez, let’s just send every Utah kid to trade school or college with that $500 million! The hardline point is UDOT is proposing a plan based on the formula that they have always used but that here is irrelevant. I am asking that we please, right now before it is too late, add another variable. One that takes a hard look at climate and tells us the honest, heartbreaking truth. Let’s add a climatologist to the planning team. Hell, let’s get a climatologist in the room for every big decision the city’s going to make going forward. Because we need to talk about the Great Salt Lake water levels pronto. Is this all related? Yes. And but I’m going to talk about that in a different post down the line.) 

I have two more points that are absent in this whole debacle of a conversation.

Point 1: Traffic and Impact

You know it’s summer in Utah when you start seeing the orange cones and blinking arrow signs in the roads. Salt Lake is one big road construction zone from June to November every year. It slows traffic and results in traffic jams and accidents. Civil engineering is a tough job, but I wouldn’t say UDOT exactly nails it. They get the job done but it takes what it takes and it costs what it costs. We all deal with the nuisance in the name of maintenance or maybe even progress. 

How confident are you that UDOT can effectively and efficiently construct a four-lane highway up Little Cottonwood Canyon? That place is narrow. There are cliffs, a river, boulders, our watershed, and meanwhile we all want to use the canyon all day, every day. This will be a multiyear project and will create traffic nightmares for the entirety of the project. Won’t it be great to sit at multiple stop lights in the canyon while they move one way traffic through construction zones?

Then, let’s look at the Gondola which will be built by a private company. I wonder if that private company is willing to bid a hard number on the construction bid. That would certainly be favorable to Utah taxpayers. Shouldn’t the private contractor be accountable? What if they felt the pressure to meet their proposed plans because they knew they would have to eat their overages when the project overruns by a couple years and a couple hundred million dollars. Something I find heart-sickeningly funny is when I hear the propaganda that “this will be the longest tram line in the world.” Have you ever looked at all the infrastructure associated with Snowbird’s aerial tram? That tram line is maybe two miles long and the substations and power poles and lines are massive and imposing. Massive swaths of forest was cleared to make room. The sound around those stations and the buzz from the tram is not peaceful. And the proposed Gondola Works project is proposing a 13-mile tram line up a narrow, winding canyon? The impact would be substantial. This isn’t a reasonable proposal, it’s a circus idea. 

Point 2: Snowbird and Alta

Snowbird and Alta are quietly saying they support Gondola Works, not too loudly though. What Snowbird and Alta are not explaining, because no one is really asking, is what infrastructure investments they plan to make to accommodate all of Salt Lake City riding up Little Cottonwood Canyon on the fancy new Gondola. Are they building sweet family lockers? Are they building new facilities to accommodate a new user experience? Mind you, most of the traffic conditions in Little Cottonwood have to do with weather but another massive consideration is parking availability. How was it that the long red snake of traffic came to fill our canyon during October Fest this year when there was zero snow and the pavement was bone dry? It is because there was not sufficient parking at Snowbird. Why haven’t Alta and Snowbird ever built new parking structures to accommodate their clients? They could start construction on new parking structures tomorrow as they are private companies. No. They’re waiting to get the lay of the land. They’re sitting tight to see if they can let the public pay for their future business growth.

Neither of these proposed solutions are best for Salt Lake City residents, Utah, or users of the canyon. But stay tuned. In my next post, I’ll lay out an incremental, cost-effective solution for the challenges we face in Little Cottonwood Canyon. 

Jeff Roche lives at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon. He is a local business owner, entrepreneur, and dad who enjoys riding pow just like the rest of you.

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