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Clear the Roads


What will it take for mountain communities to get ahead of the transportation problem?

By Gordy Megroz | Photographs by Helen Richardson

In November 2012, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon stood among a group of reporters at the Old Mill Golf Course in Salt Lake City and admitted that the famous ski areas that dot Utah’s canyons are facing a major problem. “Salt Lake Valley is going to double in population in the next 30 years,” he said, pointing out that both the number of permanent residents and the number of vacationers drawn to the area will grow. “But there is limited parking and, of course, there are limited ways to get up the mountains.” Before ending the press conference he added, “There is no one quick fix for the transportation problems in the canyons.” 

Any skier who’s waited in traffic can commiserate. In Utah, a state still renowned for its lack of ski area crowding, the news caused a brake light and carbon dioxide fueled meltdown. Twice as many cars in Little Cottonwood Canyon? Powder days for commuters wouldn’t begin until noon! 

In Colorado, traffic along the infamous I-70 corridor—the gateway to 14 ski areas—can transform a two-hour trip from Denver to Vail into a six-hour slog. Farther west, the weekend exodus of mountain enthusiasts from the San Francisco Bay Area to Lake Tahoe turns sections of I-80 into a parking lot. What should be a three-hour drive can take upwards of nine hours. The gridlock isn’t just a nuisance, it’s an environmental and economic disaster. According to the Denver Department of Environmental Health, a single car idling for just five minutes each day produces 260 pounds of carbon dioxide—the gas most responsible for global warming—per year. And a 2007 study by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce found that the Colorado economy lost $800,000 for every hour consumers were stuck in traffic on I-70. 


A traffic jam flares after weather closes the Eisenhower Tunnel on Colorado’s I-70.

Europeans don’t have those problems—at least not to the same extent. For decades, trains have been carrying passengers to ski resorts on the Continent, sometimes dropping them right at the base of the slopes. Drive from Paris to Les Arcs, one of Europe’s most popular ski areas, and you’ll be in the car for eight hours if there’s no traffic. But hop the rails in the City of Light and for $60 you’re riding the lifts in just over four hours. In Spain, government officials are considering permanently closing the roadways to Valdesqui Ski Resort, located in a national park an hour from Madrid. It would prevent car emissions from polluting the pristine surroundings. 

American lawmakers are beginning to catch on—at least in urban areas. Beginning this summer in Massachusetts, in an effort to reduce the horrific weekend traffic heading to Cape Cod, state transit authorities will offer $30 round-trip train rides from Boston to the Cape using tracks typically employed for transporting cargo. Why not a ski area equivalent? Long term, more widespread railway plans are also being considered. In December, despite facing a looming fiscal cliff, President Obama pushed ahead with a multi-billion-dollar plan to build high-speed rails throughout the country. And ongoing discussions about carless access to the mountains are on the agenda in Utah and Colorado. Within the past year, legislators in both states have commissioned studies aimed at preventing an all-out carmageddon, as well as actually working to implement a sustainable model that could, some bright day, eliminate traffic problems altogether.

The Utah study, headed up by the Salt Lake County mayor’s office, offers several solutions to the traffic problem, including running either a train or aerial tram from the base of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons up to the ski resorts. Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is weighing the feasibility of 11 different technologies that would transport people 120 miles from the Denver International Airport to the Eagle County Airport (just 35 miles west of Vail), dropping passengers at resorts along the way. Up for consideration are several different types of trains, including a magnet-propelled locomotive that would travel at around 150 miles per hour. “Only one of these trains exists and it’s in Shanghai, China,” says Mike Riggs, vice president of Denver-based AZTEC Engineering and a consultant to CDOT. “If one was to be built in Colorado, it would travel two to three times faster than the trains they use in the mountains of Europe.” 

Also being contemplated is a futuristic contraption called a Swift Tram: sleek passenger coaches would be hung from a three-foot diameter steel tube, suspended 25 feet in the air by concrete pylons spaced 100 feet apart. “You’d be able to pull these coaches right into a docking station on the second floor of a hotel,” says CEO Carl Lawrence. 

Though the notion of getting dropped off right next to a bellhop sounds appealing, CDOT’s task will be to figure out which mode of transportation will work best and can be built at the lowest cost. “Can we run a train down I-70’s median?” asks David Krutsinger, the CDOT project manager. “Or do we need to tunnel through the mountains the way they do in Europe?”

The bigger question, though, is who will pay? And how? In Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon alone, the estimated cost of building a train or tram is between $220 and $680 million. In Colorado, CDOT expects the price tag to be around $15 billion. According to those involved with the process in both states, the construction expenses will need to be shared by taxpayers and private corporations. That includes the ski resorts, which clearly benefit from easier access to the slopes. 

And if the funds somehow come together, ski areas will also have to incur another expense: improving the public transportation infrastructure around their resorts. To that point: Amtrak runs a train from San Francisco to Truckee, but most people still prefer to drive to the area’s ski resorts. That’s probably because the train is slow—sometimes taking six hours to get to its destination—and for some bizarre reason it doesn’t accept checked baggage, including skis and snowboards. But the other factor is that there aren’t enough buses and shuttles to effectively transport people around Truckee and Tahoe once they’re there, a problem local officials are currently working on.

Then there’s our collective right to cheap gasoline. (At least that’s how many view it.) Transportation wonks need to figure out how to keep the price of public transit to the mountains low enough that it doesn’t scare people back to their cars. A study by the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority suggests a Denver to Vail round-trip would cost about $70, a financial hit that only makes fiscal sense if gas prices continue to rise. 

Despite the hurdles, officials in both Colorado and Utah appear anxious to move forward with plans to build alternative transportation. Next, Utah will embark on a $2 to $3 million study determining the environmental impact a train or tram might have on the state’s canyons. CDOT, meanwhile, expects to select a technology by 2017 and hopes it can be fully installed by 2025. Until then, skiers and riders will have to keep trying to get an early jump on the traffic. And carpool.

From the Winter 2013 issue.


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