The federal government has agreed to donate $200,000 to help local leaders study ways of improving transportation between ski resorts in the canyons east of Salt Lake City, officials announced Friday.
Once completed, the plan should give state and local leaders an idea how to improve transportation to the point where Utah could compete for foreign tourists and the Olympics, Lt. Gov. Val Oveson said.Local leaders will hire a professional to conduct the study, which will include controversial ideas such as building a series of ski lifts connecting the resorts and boring a tunnel through the base of the mountains to make way for a subway system, Oveson said.
The federal Urban Mass Transit Administration granted the money to encourage private development of mass transportation.
Environmentalists already have voiced strong opposition to the transportation proposals state and ski officials have presented.
Each plan has one underlying goal - to link Big and Little Cottonwood canyons with Park City. Environmentalists believe that would encourage more tourists to lodge at Park City rather than in the valley. Resort owners would then be encouraged to build more hotels and lodges.
It is also not clear how the grant will affect a master plan Salt Lake County is trying to develop for the growth of the canyons. The county has banned construction in the canyons until the plan is completed sometime near the end of this year.
But officials said the two studies will "dovetail."
"We've invited Salt Lake County to participate to make sure there is no duplication," said Homer Chandler, executive director of Mountainlands Association.
Mountainlands, composed of leaders from Summit, Wasatch and Utah counties, will accept the grant and hire a professional to do the study. The grant specifies the study must be done within 14 months, Oveson said.
In addition to the ski lifts and tunnel, the study will consider whether an expanded bus system, a high-mountain road, a railway up the mountain or conventional or self-propelled trams should be built.
Oveson said improvements in transportation are critical to the future of the canyons.
"I believe an interconnect is important to make our seven ski resorts the promotional tool they need to be," he said. "We could market in Europe, Japan and other places in a way we've never been able to before."
Chandler said people from other mountain regions will be watching Utah to see how it solves transportation problems.
"If we can do this here, they can do it in other high mountain areas," he said.
The proposal to build a tunnel was introduced last year as a way to drain drinking water from the mountains. Once the water is gone, mining can resume and the rushing water can be harnessed for electricity, proponents said.
But while the study will examine the tunnel proposal, it will look only at its effects on transportation, not on water and electricity, Chandler said.