A Salt Lake consulting firm has been selected to do a federally funded $200,000 feasibility study of direct transportation links between ski resorts and other mountain recreation areas east of Salt Lake City.

But whether Webster/Kohler Research and Planning will recommend the so-called Supertunnel, Ski Interconnect or any of a dozen other proposals to link the resorts via a mountain transportation system probably won't be known until early next year.The Urban Mass Transit Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation gave the grant to the Mountainlands Association of Governments last August to study the linking of Big and Little Cottonwood canyon resorts with Park City and Wasatch Mountain State Park by a mass transit system.

Mountainlands Association administers federal job training, economic development and transportation programs in Utah, Summit and Wasatch counties.

Executive director Homer Chandler said although many of the resorts to be studied lie outside its three-county administrative area, Mountainlands got the grant because it proposed the study as a pilot project that may be applicable to Colorado and California ski areas and because it proposed any transportation system be funded entirely by the private sector.

State and ski industry officials have hailed the direct-link concept as a potential boon to Utah's tourist industry and a possible source of 20,000 new jobs. But environmentalists have been critical.

Direct linkage between the major Wasatch Front ski areas would create a Utah ski mecca to rival the super-resorts of Europe and would draw more tourists, boosting the state's economy and tax revenues, government and industry officials claim.

Environmentalists say those added tourists would put more strain on overtaxed canyon ecosystems while lodging in Park City, leaving the Salt Lake Valley with environmental and infrastructure headaches but few of the economic benefits.

Local officials hope the study will help them approach urgent issues like canyon traffic congestion, parking problems and future development - issues being addressed in Salt Lake County's Wasatch Canyon Master Plan.

Earlier drafts of the plan call for further study of a mountain transportation system, but have made no recommendations.

Webster/Kohler is to determine the potential need for a mountain transportation system linking the resorts and evaluate the technical, financial and environmental feasibility of the various alternatives.

Among the most likely system options identified so far: expanded public bus service to the resorts; a high mountain road link; the Supertunnel, a tunnel beginning on the Salt Lake Valley floor extending through the mountains with elevators providing access to each resort; a cog railway system; the Ski Interconnect, a series of ski lifts linking the resorts; a high-speed gondola; and a suspended fixed cable tramway.