UDOT Working On Long-Term Solutions For Busy Canyons

Feb 6, 2020, 5:48 PM | Updated: Feb 7, 2020, 10:39 am

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS, Utah – The traffic rush for the Cottonwood canyons Thursday was another reminder that something has to change, as congestion intensified at the mouth of both canyons. Both Little and Big Cottonwood canyons are substantially busier on peak days than they were a decade ago. But, the Utah Department of Transportation is working on long-term solutions right now, and everyone can share their ideas.

“Way, way more traffic now. By far. By far!” said Sergeant Ed Twohill, who works the canyons for the Unified Police Department.

“The amount of cars we have coming up here is extraordinary,” he said.

By the numbers, there are more people heading into Big and Little Cottonwood canyons on a day like Thursday than in the past.

Little Cottonwood Canyon was closed Thursday due to high winds and avalanche danger. That shifted a lot more traffic over to Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Typically, 6000 cars are headed up each canyon on a peak day vying for limited parking. Traffic is growing about 2% a year.

Plus, one of the busiest days a dozen years ago is now an average day up in the Cottonwood canyons. That means there is regularly more traffic headed up the canyons on powder days, weekends and holidays than any previous year.

“It’s really important that people are carpooling, and taking mass transit,“ said Twohill.

A consulting firm working with UDOT has crunched the numbers and discovered several trains.

“In the winter, we get this huge surge of traffic,” said Frank Pisani, a project director with HDR, a local consulting firm working with UDOT. “Everybody wants to get up to the resorts before 9 o’clock in the morning. So, everybody is showing up at the same time wanting to do the same thing.”

In two-lane canyons like the Cottonwoods, that’s going to lead to a traffic jam. When it’s snowing on top of that, it slows things down even more.

“Everybody wants to go skiing when it’s snowing,” said Pisani. “So, you have inclement weather, and high volume all at the same time.”

The solo driver, or single occupant vehicle, continues to be one of the biggest problems. More than 1/3 of the cars entering the canyon on peak days are single occupant. Only 1/4 of the vehicles entering the Cottonwood canyons are carpooling with three or more.

“I like to drive with a good amount of people in my car always,” said Justin Wolf, who brought three friends up to Brighton with him. “I’ll even pick people up on the side of the road to limit congestion.”

That’s a behavioral change that makes a positive difference on traffic in the canyon.

Meantime, UDOT is working on an environmental impact statement for structural changes. A variable toll depending on the number of people in your car and the time of day is one option.

“We will be looking at a variety of measures to help change behavior and provide choices — and good choices — for people to travel up and down the canyon,” said John Thomas, a UDOT project manager focused on issues in the Cottonwood Canyons.

“When everybody’s trying to get up in the morning, or leave in the evening, those extra people enjoying the canyons really starting to cause a tipping point. We start to see more and more congestion that we didn’t see as much maybe five to 10 years ago.”

UDOT already has 1500 comments on the environmental impact statement. Thomas said they’ve been given 100 different ideas on how to ease traffic in the canyons on peak days.

This summer, UDOT will ask the public to weigh in on their top options which may include a gondola, a rail line, or an extra bus lane. One year from now, they expect to begin implementing a major traffic solution for the Cottonwood Canyons.

New this year, the UDOT Cottonwood Canyons website and social media alerts.

“We’re putting a lot more information out there to try to get people to think about their trip before they’re headed to the canyon,“ said Pisani.

This season, carpooling and mass transit are still the best ways to reduce traffic in the canyons.

“Every time we get one car off the road, that’s just one car off the road that helps everybody else’s recreation experience in the canyon,” said Thomas.

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UDOT Working On Long-Term Solutions For Busy Canyons