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Mountain Mass Transit: Skiing Beyond the Chair Lift in Metro Salt Lake City

Debate over whether a gondola system is the best way to connect seven ski resorts in the Wasatch Range, where traffic up from Salt Lake City routinely clogs mountain roads.

Credit: Greg Scruggs

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Cinephiles flocked this week to Park City, Utah for the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival. While the winning indie darling may generate debate among film critics, for a real taste of controversy ask a local about SkiLink. The proposed gondola connecting two resorts has touched a nerve about where, how and whether to develop transportation infrastructure between the seven ski areas in the increasingly crowded Wasatch Mountains, which loom over nearby Salt Lake City.

Utah license plates brag about the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” and the 2002 Winter Olympics gave the state a chance to share its champagne powder with the world. Metropolitan Salt Lake is home to 2 million people within a half-hour drive of the mountains, the largest such concentration in North America. On a powder day, it’s not uncommon for dedicated skiers to take a few downhill laps before heading into work — the adult version of a two-hour school delay.

But while the city’s proximity to the great outdoors is a huge draw, ease of access can also overwhelm the mountains. Although Park City is adjacent to an interstate that runs right through the Utah capital, the closest places to pull over and ski are up Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons, both of which are served by twisty two-lane roads. When conditions are right, skiers end up getting more traffic than powder as the canyon roads become parking lots.

The Utah Transit Authority operates buses during resort hours from various points in metro Salt Lake, with stops at carpool lots at the base of the canyons, and rides are free for season pass holders. However, the cars continue to pile up along roadways that pass under 36 avalanche paths, according to Andrew McLean, a professional ski mountaineer who lives in Park City and has been vocal on the issue of Wasatch traffic. While the Utah Department of Transportation conducts regular avalanche control, McLean cautions, “One slide could wipe out the bumper-to-bumper cars, and it’s going to be shocking to the public when a bunch of people get killed.”

Enter SkiLink, which floated the idea of erecting a gondola between Canyons, a Park City resort, and Solitude Mountain, in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The first feasibility studies, conducted in 2010, found that the distance could be traveled aerially in a mere 11 minutes. Winter driving from Park City to either of the canyons requires going into and back out of Salt Lake City, a trip of at least an hour. On a clear day, however, the view from the summit of one resort usually offers a glimpse of the other. As the crow flies, only a few miles separate each canyon and Park City.

A map of SkiLink’s proposed route and its relationship to nearby roads.

The land between the resorts, though, is part of the Wasatch National Forest, and congressional approval is required to sell a portion of it to Talisker, the Canadian developer behind the project. Utah’s largely Republican delegation raised the issue in Washington, where it moved quickly through committee in 2011. Once word of the legislative land grab filtered back home, however, a broad coalition that includes major players like the U.S. Forest Service, the mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, and the Sierra Club banded together under the banner Stop SkiLink.

Their main bone of contention is false advertising: While touted as a transportation initiative, SkiLink can hardly be considered public transit. Its terminus on the Canyons side is slated for a gated community, The Colony, with multimillion-dollar homes and neighbors like Will Smith. Those who aren’t A-list celebrities would have to first purchase a nearly $100 lift ticket, then ride four or five chairlifts, ultimately spending more time from parking lot to parking lot than driving would take. The easy access from the Solitude side, meanwhile, would only lead to worse traffic up Big Cottonwood Canyon as a shortcut to Park City. Add concerns about the watershed to the mix — semi-arid Salt Lake City depends on the annual Wasatch snowpack for its water supply — and SkiLink raised more red flags than a beginner on a double black diamond.

One of the most vocal constituencies opposed to the project are backcountry skiers and boarders, who don’t rely on chairlifts or gondolas at all but instead hike on their skis or snowshoe with boards on their backs. The gaps between resorts, including 30 acres of National Forest that would have been turned over to Talisker, offer plenty of prized terrain that this diehard community doesn’t want to relinquish. It would also set a dangerous precedent of privatizing cherished public land.

Local ski resorts argue that interconnected areas will bring big-time tourism dollars — the SkiLink feasibility study says it will produce $100 million in annual economic activity once up and running. But as Mark Menlove, executive director of the Winter Wildlands Alliance, points out, “Backcountry skiing is the only segment of winter sports that is growing.” He cites multiple examples of interconnecting resorts without increasing visitorship, from 2010’s Olympic mountain, Whistler/Blackcomb, which merged in 1997, to Little Cottonwood Canyon’s world-famous Alta and Snowbird resorts, where combined passes are sold and skiers can traverse the summit between the two.

For devotees of a sport that relies on public land, the preferred solution to metropolitan traffic clogging mountain solitude is, unsurprisingly, a public one. John Mletschnig, who writes the Utah Backcountry Skiing blog, says, “I don’t dismiss connections to solve greater transportation issues. I just think SkiLink is flawed. I want to see something owned by the state of Utah.” He points to the publicly owned and operated Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway in New Hampshire or the famed cable cars of Chamonix, France, in the shadow of Mont Blanc.

From a Little Cottonwood Canyon summit last week, a backcountry skier pointed out the road that connects Big Cottonwood Canyon and Park City — the stretch SkiLink would knit together — in the summer months. “They could just plow the road in winter,” the skier, who declined to give his name because he works at Canyons Resort, deadpanned. “But in a perfect world, I’d love to see a train.”

There are more than 1,000 miles of former and active mining tunnels crisscrossing beneath the Central Wasatch, many of which moved heavy machinery and mine workers, making a train or bus rapid transit an enticing option to link all the major mountain destinations in a European-style arrangement. The classic Swiss Alps town of Zermatt, at the base of the Matterhorn, is entirely car-free and easily reached by rail. Closer to the Wasatch, although not accessible by train, Utah’s Zion National Park has banned regular car traffic and implemented an extensive bus system where climbers can get on and off as they please. Meanwhile, there is a logical operator for a new transit option in the Utah Transit Authority, which in addition to its ski buses has a strong track record with its comeback kid of a light rail network.

Paying for such heavy infrastructure is another matter. Even progressive Vancouver couldn’t muster the resources to create regular passenger rail service from the Olympic city to its downhill mountain, 76 miles north, and instead resorted to widening the highway. The 2002 Olympics didn’t deliver a rail link between Salt Lake City and Park City, where the mountain events were held, though the light rail was a byproduct of the Games.

Advocates remain optimistic that some kind of solution will emerge. Menlove spoke to Next City just after visiting Utah for the first meeting of the Wasatch Summit, a planning forum for stakeholders to hash out the future of the highly coveted mountain range. “I think there’s huge political will to solve the transportation issues affecting the Wasatch,” he said. “Salt Lake City has made great strides with [light rail system] Trax, and this is an extension of that.”

With a long-range planning process underway, the Stop SkiLink crowd is breathing a temporary sigh of relief. During the current session of Congress, Utah’s delegation has so far declined to reintroduce legislation that would make SkiLink possible.

Last year Vail Resorts, an industry behemoth, assumed ownership of Canyons, the resort that pushed the hardest for the gondola. When reached for comment, Mike Goar, Canyons’ general manager, wrote via e-mail, “The Ski Link is still an idea being contemplated by Canyons Resort as part of a larger vision to connect all of the ski / snowboard resorts in the Wasatch via aerial transportation systems.”

A solution can’t come soon enough for Salt Lake City’s skiers and citizens, who are suffering through a dry stretch that means not only no new snow in the mountains, but also smog to rival Los Angeles. While powder day traffic jams are hardly the main culprit behind SLC’s air quality issues — referred to as a “threat” in Mayor Ralph Becker’s 2014 State of the City address — the mountains are also the closest respite from the ugly haze, meaning that for as long as four wheels remain the easiest way to get there, Salt Lakers are caught in an unfortunate Catch-22.

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Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationlight railolympicssalt lake citygondolas

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