The Utah Department of Transportation received a staggering 13,000 submissions during the public comment period for the environmental impact statement on how to combat traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Josh Van Jura, project manager for UDOT, says the number shatters the department’s previous record for public comments on other large projects by nearly 10,000 submissions.
“I think that number really speaks to how much passion there is around Little Cottonwood Canyon,” Van Jura said, noting that it’s too early to say when exactly UDOT will issue a recommendation.
However with the number of submissions, Van Jura said it’s highly unlikely the department will reach a decision by Christmas, and that a time frame spilling into the spring of 2022 is more realistic.
And depending on the substance of the comments — Van Jura said they have received a number of in-depth submissions, the longest from a private citizen being 25 pages — there’s a chance the process could be delayed further.
The public comment period was initially slated to last 45 days, but due to the sheer volume of submissions, was extended to 70 days and ended Sept. 3. Van Jura says that extension likely led to more substantive comments.
“The comments have certainly gotten longer as the comment period progressed,” he said. “Which is great. That’s the point of the comment period, those people spent more time reviewing the document, and therefore they have more complicated questions for us.”
UDOT is currently weighing the feasibility of two options: an 8-mile gondola that would take the public to Snowbird or Alta, or an enhanced bus system with a wider road.
The gondola is estimated to cost taxpayers $592 million and the bus system $510 million.
The debate over how to address Little Cottonwood Canyon’s traffic problem — a reality that during snowstorms or holidays can result in the 8-mile drive taking several hours — has been charged. Both Snowbird and Alta ski resorts have thrown their support behind the gondola, while Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and groups like Wasatch Backcountry Alliance favor some kind of enhanced bus service.
However, Wilson says there are other options she wants to see explored first — like a “user-friendly” hub for public transportation at the bottom of the canyon, improved buses, tolling and a system that rewards carpooling.
“I don’t like either choice, and frankly I think what we’ve done is chase the wrong thing for years,” Wilson said during a press conference in September. “It’s sort of like a Jenga game — if everything is stacked up perfectly, every assumption plays out, you’re going to be fine. But you pull one piece out and the Jenga pieces fall to the ground.”
Van Jura says it’s too early to say if there is a favorite among the public comments.
“I will say there is a lot of support for the gondola. There is a lot of support for the bus. And there’s also support for no action, which is always an alternative in the NEPA process.”
NEPA refers to the National Environmental Policy Act, a law passed in 1970 that dictates how government agencies assess the environmental impacts of proposed projects.
Wilson and Salt Lake County Councilman Jim Bradley both said that while it’s still hard to truly gauge public opinion, they think most side with the enhanced bus option.
“I think if you were to take a poll in Salt Lake County and say here are the two choices, and here’s what they’re going to cost, here’s how they serve you, I think it would be significantly in favor of the bus,” Bradley said.
Van Jura says a number of comments came from out of state, including ski tourists, climbers and second homeowners. He also knows of six nonprofits that organized form entries.
Regardless of where the comments are coming from and how they are being submitted, Van Jura says they all share an equal amount of weight.
And even if the submissions show a clear favorite, the public comment period isn’t a vote — it’s a process to ensure there are no gaps in UDOT’s plan, take into consideration alternatives that aren’t being discussed and to allow the public to push back on the assertions made in the impact statement.
“It’s really to make sure we have a complete and accurate document,” Van Jura said. “And then we’ll make the decision based on the facts within that document.”