The Cottonwood Debate, Post 3/3 — The BUS MUST WIN: An Incremental, Cost-Effective Traffic Solution for Little Cottonwood Canyon
This is part three of my hard look at what Salt Lake is considering in order to alleviate the traffic challenges in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Check out my first and second installments if you haven’t already. In those, I homed in on the Gondola Works solution and then explained my take on why neither current proposal is a win for Salt Lake and Utah. But I’m never one to complain without also presenting an alternative. Though I mentioned this third alternative briefly in my first post, here is where I’m going to dive deeper into the BUS MUST WIN solution.
What does the BUS MUST WIN really mean? Lots of people around here are talking about more public transit and free public transit. That’s a great conversation and I like that we’re having it. In this case, though, when I say the BUS MUST WIN I mean that I believe that the bus must present a distinct advantage to the user. It must be a reliable, predictable, better solution to dealing with congested traffic. It must offer the benefit to its patrons of bypassing any red snake of traffic while blowing by at a steady 50mph (or whatever the speed limit is). When you sit down in your seat on the bus, you must know that you’re using the new system to beat the old system and you’re going to get to your destination quickly, efficiently, without delay, and on time.
Do New Yorkers ever complain about subway car traffic? No. Do Chicago folk complain about the Red Line of the L being trapped by congestion? No. Can you depend on the time schedule in taking the MAX train from downtown Portland out to the Portland International Airport? Yes. You can confidently count on all these transportation sources because they move continuously from point A to point B and beyond.
Now let’s take the Portland Streetcar as an example. This transportation resource runs circular through all four quadrants of Portland on main streets. Cars drive on these same streets. Even though this is a slow mode of transportation, the Portland Streetcar is predictable and reliable because cars are not allowed in its lane as it is approaching or moving through the city. It moves continuously. In the event that a car is blocking the Portland Streetcar line, it is subject to a large fine.
The missing piece in the conversation for public bus support right now is this: how are we investing in routes and roadway improvements that allow buses to move continuously up Wasatch Boulevard and move seamlessly up Little Cottonwood Canyon?
The UDOT survey is focusing all its attention on one road: SR-210. For a comprehensive plan, it should also be looking into how Wasatch Boulevard can be a full three-lane roadway that can flex between two up/one down and one up/two down depending on time of day. In this plan, one of the two flow-adjusted lanes would always be dedicated only to bus traffic so that the bus will always, without exception, be able to move continuously. The BUS MUST WIN.
The Gondola Works proposal to date calls for a transit center at La Caille. As I explained in my first post, this would bring the congestion bottleneck out of the canyon right into the community and is no real solution at all. Why build one central transit center when you could disperse the load throughout the metro area into multiple, localized transit centers? Team localized access and no congestion with associated dedicated bus lanes that allow continuous travel to users, and you have a win.
Alternately, a transit center at the mouth of Little Cottonwood also seems to be a viable option. This could be situated well before you reach the future proposed toll booth at the mouth of Little Cottonwood. Utahns who elect continuous movement on the bus would be able to park their vehicles at the Little Cottonwood Transit center and take the bus on its dedicated lane, bypassing the toll booth and all vehicle traffic.
The second portion of UDOT’s survey should extend the Wasatch solution above into the canyon— focusing not on how we create four lanes in Little Cottonwood but how we create three. Again, this would support a two up/one down scenario in the high-traffic mornings and a two down/one up scenario in the high-traffic end-of-day commute down canyon, always with the dedicated bus-only lane.
If the global pandemic has shown us anything, it is that everyone has an opinion and people will choose as they choose for their own reasons. Those who cannot give up their freedom to drive their own vehicle up Little Cottonwood Canyon can do that. They would simply pay a toll at the Little Cottonwood Toll booth (no different than in Mill Creek Canyon) and will have to deal with the traffic caused by others who feel the same way they do. But those who elect to use the reliable and efficient bus, bolstered by its new system of access and right-of-way, will flow continuously up the canyon without ever stopping. The bus commute will predictably be 15 to 25 minutes. The time it takes those who choose to drive their own vehicle will depend. They will be at the mercy of others who made the same choice.
This also makes sense on the budget front. Why serve all three million Utah residents the Little Cottonwood bill? In a toll booth situation with a strong bus transit component, the users’ contributions directly offset the cost. The Mill Creek canyon toll is a great example. Toll income has been used brilliantly for roadway and user experience improvement in that canyon.
The BUS MUST WIN is a cost-effective incremental solution to the problem we are all experiencing. It is much more deployable and approachable than these $500 million proposals that are built on absolutes and are not taking into consideration important factors. BUS MUST WIN is scalable and deployable to Big Cottonwood Canyon as well. And at the end of the day, the State is investing in true, hard assets (buses, transit center, toll booth revenue) that will have tangible value over time and flexibility in that event that circumstances change. This plan can be reversed or salvaged. There is no reversing a four-lane highway or a 13-mile Gondola scar up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Have you seen that old gondola line in when you’re driving through downtown Moab? It’s an eye sore of past pipe dreams. The Gondola Works vision is that on steroids.
Besides, if our climate keeps on the same trajectory, at least we’ll have a bunch of buses to ride around town to lower our carbon footprint.
To summarize, I would like to see the BUS MUST WIN solution as a progressive, cost-effective, scalable solution to our congestion challenge in Little Cottonwood Canyon. I’ve shared the challenges I see in the current proposals that Salt Lake is considering, and I’ve shared details on why I think BUS MUST WIN will work.
But what will it look like on the daily? You get on a direct line “Cottonwood Express” bus at one of five (or so) localized metro transit centers that support Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon. You sit back and chill as you look out the window at the traffic below and then at the passing scenic canyon around you while the bus moves continuously at 50mph. You arrive at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon in a mere 20 to 25 minutes. You get off. You ski. You get back on the bus after a killer day and you head down. You’re back at the station in 20 to 25 minutes. You go home, feeling good about your day and about yourself, knowing that you are part of the solution and it was easy and efficient to boot. THE BUS MUST WIN for us all to win.
If you like these posts and/or you value the discussion, please share them with a friend or a community member. This is not rocket science. Little Cottonwood is a crown jewel of the Wasatch Mountains. Let’s protect its essence and the experiences it allows all of us both today and in the future. Let’s quiet the noise and allow one another to have an expanded appreciation for wild places like 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.