SALT LAKE CITY — What would it take to keep some of Utah’s high mountain passes open during the winter? And would it be worth it?
The Utah Department of Transportation hopes a $200,000 study will answer those questions.
John Woeste loves to cross-country ski on Big Mountain Highway when it's closed and the snow is groomed.
"It's basically the mountain solitude and a heck of a nice workout," he said.
Snowshoers enjoy the clean air, and snowmobilers like the quick access.
But if UDOT plowed the road, Woeste doesn’t believe there are that many people who would travel the road in the winter for commuting or commerce.
“If there was a compelling reason to have the egress over to the other side, then I would have to say, 'What’s fair?’ But I don’t know that that many people would go up there in the wintertime,” he said.
Cory Pope, program development director for UDOT, said historically because of heavy snowpack and limited use during wintertime, the roads close shortly after Thanksgiving, depending on the weather.
The routes that have seasonal closures extend from the top of Utah with state Route 39 Monte Cristo Highway (east of Ogden); state Route 65 the Big Mountain Highway (East Canyon from Morgan to the Wasatch Front); state Route 150 Mirror Lake Highway (east of Kamas to Bear River Lodge); state Route 35 Wolf Creek Pass (Woodland to Tabiona); state Route 92 American Fork Canyon/Alpine Loop (Utah County); state Route 153 Mount Holly Junction (east of Beaver), state Route 190 Guardsman Pass (Big Cottonwood Canyon to Park City) and state Route 143 in Parowan.
Every year, the department receives requests from residents who live off of seasonally closed routes interested in keeping them open during the winter or longer. Pope said it isn’t something UDOT currently budgets.
The goal of the study is to find out what it would really take to keep the roads open; would UDOT need additional buildings, additional personnel and additional equipment to clear the roads?
Safety is a key priority, and keeping the roads plowed can be tricky. “There are some hairpin turns that on the surface don’t seem like much, but the plow drivers are very adamant that those are areas they can’t even get a plow around,” Pope said.
It can cost more than $10,000 just to clear the snow from one storm on any of the roads in the study.
The study will also look to see if the positives of keeping a high mountain pass open would outweigh the negatives.
The Mirror Lake Highway and Monte Cristo Highway are very popular for snowmobilers.
“(Keeping the road open) would serve very few for commuter traffic, but it has a very high potential for recreational value there,” Pope said.
UDOT knows opening those two highways may not be practical or popular.
"In order to keep any mountainous road open, you have to stay on top of it all year-round,” Pope said.
The Utah Transportation Commission has funded the $200,000 study. It hopes to have preliminary results in February and a completed study in the spring.