SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Transit Authority officials, the U.S Forest supervisor for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Service and multiple government representatives listened Tuesday to an engineering study that recommends a number of technical solutions to solve the people problem in Big Cottonwood Canyon, including a variable toll system.
The study by University of Utah senior students studying civil engineering with an emphasis on the environment was presented without fear of political ramifications, instead focusing on technical solutions to crowded parking lots, lack of toilets and roadway threats to pedestrians and cyclists.
"I thought it was great. They did a great job of engaging in the issues," said Dave Whittekiend, supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. "Sometimes the simplest solutions that we tend to look past are the best ones."
While the federal agency has no authority to make the state highway a toll road due to jurisdictional issues, Whittekiend said the Forest Service is pursuing its own revenue generators — through recreation fees — to address the needs in the popular canyon, including maintenance of trails and toilet facilities.
The study commissioned by the Big Cottonwood Canyon Community Council recommends a variable toll for vehicles via a license plate scanner that increases in price depending on how many people are already in the canyon. The proposed price would top out at $12.50 per vehicle and include exceptions for ski resort employees and canyon residents, but ultimately the pricing would be determined by some government entity, such as a special improvement district.
Students also recommended free, year-round UTA bus service to encourage ridership to the canyon, which now stands at less than 5 percent of canyon visitors.
Revenue from the self-sustaining toll system would pay for engineering solutions in problem areas, such as boosting parking in the lot at the mouth of the canyon from 85 slots to 173 slots through restriping. Revenue could also expand the shoulders in the "S" curve by adding lightweight fill, such as geofoam blocks, to improve public safety.
The canyon hosts an average of between 4,000 and 5,000 vehicles per day, but those numbers are expected to grow as Utah's population nearly doubles by 2050.
The study notes that even with modest growth in visitation, 2 percent per year, Big Cottonwood Canyon will host 75 percent of the number of visitors who frequent Yellowstone National Park — on a geographic footprint that is 1 percent the size. Students pointed out Tuesday that Yellowstone has 466 miles of roadway for those visitors, while Big Cottonwood Canyon has only 15 miles.
"This was an interesting exercise for us," said student Meagan Maxon, "and a good experience. We are usually very focused as engineering students on the technical aspects of a project, but this took us into the social and political aspects of something complex."
Maxon's portion of the presentation focused on the need to boost the number of toilet facilities in the canyon, which stands at 14. Canyon visitation suggests the need for close to 60 toilets in the coming years, especially in light of watershed and public health concerns.
Maxon pointed out that 12 percent of Salt Lake City's water supply comes from the Big Cottonwood Canyon watershed.
Afterward, an engineer who said he attended on behalf of Cottonwood Heights praised the study.
"There is great interest in what you have done," Jim Milligan.
David Eckhoff, an adjunct professor at the university, said faculty advised the students to not let political barriers deter them from engineering solutions.
"Isn't it amazing how many practical things are squashed by political considerations? They were told to come up with practical solutions that would be difficult to argue with on a technical basis."