SALT LAKE CITY — It's been six years since government leaders rallied together to find solutions to the dreaded gridlock that inevitably comes every ski season, especially on powder days.
And yet, six years later — despite the signing of the Mountain Accord and, later, the creation of the Central Wasatch Commission — gridlock remains.
It's a massive, complex, multijurisdictional issue that continues to snarl the future of Utah's Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. And it's an issue that newly appointed Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, as a member of the Central Wasatch Commission, says she intends to tackle, determined to find at least some short-term solutions by the 2020-21 ski season.
"We are prioritizing this at Salt Lake County," Wilson told the Deseret News/KSL editorial boards on Monday.
She said she shares the "frustration" that years have gone by without tangible progress in the canyons, and she's taking the "charge" to "go get this done."
"Believe me, I'm with you," Wilson said.
Pending a transportation study from the Utah Department of Transportation, it could be at least another 18 months before the Central Wasatch Commission puts forth a comprehensive long-term plan, Wilson said, which is why she's got her sights on the short term.
"I, along with others, want to see things happen in an expedited way," she said. "The longer-term solutions need more in-depth study. I think there are some common sense, quicker solutions that don't solve the problem in perpetuity that may address some of the concerns."
What short-term solution is she proposing? Wilson suggested bus rapid transit locations or some "low-impact" lane expansion in areas that wouldn't require too much environmental impact.
"I'm one of many on the Central Wasatch Commission, and I don't hold all the cards on this," she said. "But I think we could find a way to take care of lane expansion immediately in any area that doesn't require either building bridges or blasting through rock."
Wilson said it's likely unrealistic to expect any tangible change for the upcoming ski season, but she's hopeful there will be some real short-term solutions by the 2020-21 ski season.
"I can make a commitment that as much as my one voice on the (Central Wasatch Commission) matters, that we'll have something in place by the season after this," Wilson said.
Meanwhile, Salt Lake is competing for the Olympics likely as soon as 2030. Asked if leaders could leverage the possibility of the Winter Games to speed up work in the canyons, Wilson said she "would not be on board for that," saying that proposal might do "more harm than good."
The mayor said the canyons don't have the "infrastructure" or the ability to accommodate the number of people the Olympics would bring, and the timing would be too tight.
"I just don't think we have that timeline," she said, "I don't think the timing is there," she said, acknowledging there may be others who feel differently. "I would fear we would chase that down and never have it work out."
Confusion and conflation
It's been a long, winding road for the Central Wasatch.
Salt Lake County's original canyons plan hasn't been updated since it was completed in 1989, after it was placed on hold for the Mountain Accord — a process that didn't have any legal or jurisdictional authority but was meant to launch a collaborative effort between stakeholders to start working toward a common goal to protect the Wasatch while relieving the gridlock in the canyons.
Officials signed the Accord in 2015, launching years of study and stakeholder meetings, which eventually morphed into the Central Wasatch Commission — the body intended to carry out the Mountain Accord's goals.
At that point, former Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams also spearheaded the creation of the Mountainous Planning Commission, meant to act as an advisory body to put forth land use recommendations to the County Council.
The Mountainous Planning District and the Central Wasatch Commission are two "very different" bodies, said Catherine Kanter, Wilson's newly appointed deputy mayor of regional operations.
While the Mountainous Planning Commission acts as a "regular planning commission" and an "advisory body" to the County Council on land use issues, the Central Wasatch Commission is a quasi-governmental body born out of an interlocal agreement that focuses on the overall long-term development of the canyons, Kanter said.
Tangle of bureaucracy
Salt Lake City continues to have extraterritorial jurisdiction over water, essentially holding veto power because it can "basically trump other local jurisdictions," Sommerkorn said. Then there's the Utah Department of Transportation, which controls the state roads. The forest service has jurisdiction over federal lands. Then there's the ski resorts and towns like Alta, and now newly incorporated Brighton, with their own jurisdictional powers.
Is all the bureaucracy adding to the gridlock? To Wilson, the Central Wasatch Commission is supposed to act as a kind of antidote. She and her staff say it's meant to bring all stakeholders together to cut through the bureaucracy and find a path toward real solutions.
"Mountain Accord and now the Central Wasatch Commission is an attempt to try to bring them all together and say, 'Let's talk to each other and understand that we each have parts of this but we need to work together," Wilf Sommerkorn, director of regional planning and transportation for the county, said.
But, he acknowledged, "Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work very fast."9 comments on this story
Wilson acknowledged "our process is taking too long" and has been "clunky." But, she said that's the nature of the beast since so many jurisdictions have a stake in the future of the canyons.
"This is not a simple government structure," she said. "It just isn't."
"My personal hope is that we can carve out some short-term solutions knowing that the longer-term solution of a transportation system — whether it be rail, air, road — is going to take years to build," she said. "We have to look at short term."