Utah’s population keeps growing, and traffic keeps getting more congested. Nobody wants to sit in a traffic jam, but counterintuitively, making driving easier causes a phenomenon called “induced traffic” that ultimately makes traffic worse.
The nearby Wasatch Mountains are reaching a crisis point. The Utah Department of Transportation says that on a busy day, more than 6,600 vehicles go up Little Cottonwood Canyon alone. The problem is, construction of a wider road or more parking would also ruin the scenery and natural beauty that people drive up the canyon to experience.
Recently a group of University of Utah engineering students considered the problem of how to mitigate Little Cottonwood traffic problems without widening the road. The students concluded that the cheapest, least environmentally damaging solution would be to charge user fees and tolls in order to persuade more people to ride busses. During the 2018 General Session, the Utah Legislature passed SB 71 “Road Tolls Provisions” with Little Cottonwood Canyon specifically in mind.
Improvements to bus service could also help. Ski areas already issue UTA bus passes along with season passes, but ridership is low. In past years, transit service has been inconvenient at the end of the ski day when everyone wants to go home at the same time. Also, busses don’t run in the summertime when peak crowding can be just as bad.
Other student ideas include traffic apps that would let people book a seat on a bus or reserve resort parking; building avalanche sheds to prevent road closure; and making minor improvements to facilitate traffic flow around parking lots.
The student project came at a good time since the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is currently preparing an Environmental Impact Statement for Little Cottonwood Canyon, anticipating that a draft for public comment will be ready by Winter 2019. Canyon transportation planning could be a model for other road projects because nobody wants to ruin the canyons. There is public pressure to take environmental considerations seriously and a willingness to consider options besides just building more pavement.
By contrast, overzealous planning for widening roads in other parts of Utah threaten to destroy the very places people are trying to drive to. In Davis County, UDOT plans to make Highway 89 into a freeway over understandably strong objections from people whose neighborhoods will be ruined (Residents’ Voices United on 89).
Likewise, the West Davis Corridor freeway expansion is already set to despoil neighborhoods and bird habitat in Farmington Bay. A citizens’ “shared solution” offered a better plan, but traffic took priority over preserving wildlife, farmland and neighborhoods.
Cottonwood Canyons planning offers a chance to do things a better way.
Little Cottonwood Canyon EIS: udot.utah.gov/littlecottonwoodeis/#to