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Toll roads could be in Big, Little Cottonwood canyons by 2025

Posted at 5:03 PM, May 09, 2023

LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON, Utah — Utah's Department of Transportation is moving ahead with plans to implement toll roads in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.

Appearing at the Utah Taxpayers Association's annual conference on Monday, UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras said the goal is to have toll roads in place by 2025 alongside increased transit service, targeting the increased congestion generated by the ski resorts.

"The way to make mass transit work is really about targeting those high volume locations," Braceras told FOX 13 News. "So really this is about the ski resorts."

Braceras said right now, the road in Little Cottonwood Canyon can handle about 1,000 cars an hour but on big powder days can see as many as 1,500 cars per hour.

The tolling gantry would be located above White Pine in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Braceras said, avoiding trailheads and other areas below the resorts. The location in Big Cottonwood Canyon is to be determined. To push skiers to ditch their vehicles for mass transit, Braceras said UDOT is looking at increasing bus service, including private bus service alongside Utah Transit Authority lines, and implementing a variable toll.

The toll could be as high as $20 to $50 per vehicle.

"I’d love to make the transit costs possibly free and the tolling amount to increase to help influence people to change their trip to transit," he said.

Tolling was authorized by the Utah State Legislature several years ago, but it has become a part of UDOT's plans for future traffic control measures in the canyons. The agency is also exploring a controversial gondola option for Little Cottonwood Canyon. While the gondola is UDOT's preferred alternative, the agency is finalizing its environmental impact statement with a record of decision expected this summer. That has generated thousands of public comments and threats of litigation.

"The tolling will be part of the phased approach where we implement buses in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon as well as if and when we go to the gondola," Braceras said.

Save Our Canyons, which opposes the gondola project, said it supports tolling in the canyons.

"We think any tolling strategy needs to be rolled out with an improved year-round transit strategy as well," said Carl Fisher, the group's executive director.

But Fisher told FOX 13 News that Save Our Canyons wants to see a more comprehensive strategy for all of the area's canyons. The group has concerns about people shifting their recreation spots to avoid paying, creating additional issues.

"If you start tolling in one canyon, you’ll shift them to another," Fisher said. "If you start tolling in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon, I guarantee you’re going to see a massive influx of people recreating in Parley’s Canyon and Millcreek Canyon."

At the Utah Taxpayers Association conference, lawmakers said they supported tolling. Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, whose district includes Little Cottonwood Canyon, said he has not yet taken a position on the gondola proposal but acknowledged a lot of his neighbors and constituents don't like it. Still, he viewed tolling as a way to target ski resort traffic.

"Anyone who wants to enjoy the canyons for rock climbing, hiking, or other recreation in the lower parts of the canyon will not be subject to tolling," Sen. Cullimore said.

Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, who is a skier herself, said she was fine with a toll. She also supported expanded bus service.

"I think user fees are really important," she told FOX 13 News. "That’s basically what a toll is. Who's using the road would help to pay for it."