SALT LAKE CITY — Congestion and parking issues up popular recreation destinations like Big and Little Cottonwood canyons continue to worsen as more people seek to get outdoors and Utah's population grows.
The U.S. Forest Service, the Utah Department of Transportation, ski resorts, cities and Salt Lake County are among the array of entities that have sought traffic solutions, along with lawmakers who have approved an investment of more than $60 million to work on fixes at Little Cottonwood Canyon specifically.
That spending package approved last year by the Utah Legislature is now being followed up with a proposal by Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, to make it easier to place tolls on roadways in Utah, particularly the crowded canyons.
Niederhauser says his measure, SB71, specifically enables electronic tolling to be instituted in places where it might be merited.
"Nobody wants a toll booth at the mouth of the canyon, and that is not going to happen," he said.
With skiing, hiking, biking and a number of other recreational activities just minutes away from the metropolitan Salt Lake area, Niederhauser says it is well past the time for "talk" on what to do to alleviate congestion.
"People don't like tolling, I don't particularly like tolling, but I am looking for solutions," he said.
Forest Service officials say visitation to Big and Little Cottonwood canyons has increased 35 percent over the last three years, and summer visitation is now outpacing that of winter, growing at a rate of 8 percent a year on average.
The crowds that forced Arches National Park to contemplate a reservation system for access are also forcing new management strategies for the canyons, Niederhauser said.
The senate leader said he doesn't believe trains are the answer, but improved parking — such as terraced lots — more buses and variable tolls could help.
"It is kind of sad when you see what is happening to our national treasures," He said. "They are facing the same kind of problems we are facing in the canyons. You can't get in there if there is no capacity."
A May University of Utah engineering study looked at the three "T's" that present challenges for the canyons: traffic, trails and toilets.
The study concluded that variable tolling — where fees increase at peak times — could generate revenue to help with problems like trail or toilet maintenance.
Electronic open-road tolling could also be used to waive or reduce fees for canyon residents or patrons of canyon restaurants.
The report was commissioned by the Big Cottonwood Canyon Community Council, made up of canyon residents long frustrated by the lack of management solutions to crowds.
"We are just getting crushed up with the amount of visitors without sufficient management," said Barb Cameron, council president. "We are just getting crushed. We are almost a community in crisis because of this. I think tolling would be a viable alternative."
Cameron said she knows area businesses and ski resorts would have concerns about impeded access, but she said she believes there could be compromises to address those concerns.
"I must say the residents are supportive," she said. "Would there be fees for family to visit? Maybe. There are tradeoffs."25 comments on this story
Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty said Niederhauser has been working closely with resorts on his proposal.
"One of the great things about these canyons is the ski resorts are so close to the city," Rafferty said, adding that it also means the conveniences makes it easy for skiing buddies to rendezvous in separate vehicles.
"We just have too many people driving single occupancy vehicles up the canyons," he said. "We are beyond the point where we need to manage that, and it could be through tolling."