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The Utah Transit Authority plans to drastically reduce service to Snowbird Ski Resort, beginning with the 1996-97 season, if Snowbird doesn't pitch in to help pay for new buses.

But that would be illegal, according to the resort's chief executive, Ray Gardiner. Snowbird would file a lawsuit before paying a dime of the $600,000 the UTA wants, Gardiner said Wednesday."There will be bus service here that we need, even if the court has to tell them that," Gardiner vowed. "It is UTA's obligation to provide transportation, not ours, and they should do their public duty and not foist it off on somebody else."

The UTA board of directors on Tuesday agreed to order 32 new buses, at a cost of $7.3 million, despite the resort's unwillingness to help out, as it has done in the past. UTA wants about $1.6 million from Snowbird, Alta, Brighton and Solitude ski resorts to help replace aging buses and continue daily service up Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons during ski season.

UTA general manager John Pingree said two of the other three resorts have agreed to pay additional money to cover the $600,000 if Snowbird doesn't change its mind. He would not identify the two resorts.

Gary DeSeelhorst, president of Solitude Ski Resort, said Solitude is one of the two and said his understanding is that all three would chip in to cover Snowbird's share.

If that happens, Pingree said, buses would continue to roll up Little Cottonwood Canyon toward Snowbird, but 85 percent of them would pass right by on the way to Alta. The other 15 percent would continue to stop at Snowbird. Pingree said Snowbird would receive that much service based on the sales tax revenue it generates.

Gardiner said UTA sends too many buses up the canyon as it is but said his resort would require more than 15 percent of the current level of service.

Pingree said UTA buses took about 120,000 skiers to and from Snowbird last season. Fifteen percent of that number is only 18,000, but Pingree said the number of skiers UTA would transport to Snowbird with curtailed service would be higher than that because a bulk of the service would occur on the weekends.

Gardiner said it is unfair that the resorts are being asked to pay when other businesses to which customers are transported, like the Salt Lake Valley's major shopping malls, are not asked to contribute additional funds to buy buses.

Gardiner said figures UTA has provided on the expense of transporting passengers up the canyon have been incorrect.

"They are continually shifting (numbers), trying to come up with some way to justify charging the ski resorts for services," he said. "We have never been given any figure from UTA that they are willing to stand behind."

Pingree said UTA and Snowbird officials have met six to 10 times in the past two months to try to work out an agreement, and said UTA would continue trying.

"I offered to pay the difference if these buses cost more," Gardiner said. "(UTA) has advised me these buses don't cost one penny more than UTA pays for its other buses."

Gardiner said Snowbird could start its own bus service to carry skiers up and down the canyon but suggested a court battle is more likely.