Could Tunnels Connect Seven Utah Ski Resorts?

by Marc Guido

Salt Lake City, UT – The office of Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. will convene a meeting on November 3rd to discuss potential future transportation options to improve access amongst the state’s four Cottonwood Canyons ski resorts (Alta, Brighton, Snowbird and Solitude) and its three Park City resorts (Deer Valley, Park City Mountain and The Canyons). Options being explored reportedly involve connecting Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood Canyons with Park City via a pair of vehicle tunnels.

Vehicles could one day travel beneath Twin Lakes Pass, linking the Utah ski resorts of Alta and Brighton, under a plan to be discussed by Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. next month. (photo: FTO/Marc Guido)

Vehicles could one day travel beneath Twin Lakes Pass, linking the Utah ski resorts of Alta and Brighton, under a plan to be discussed by Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. next month. (photo: FTO/Marc Guido)

Tunnels, however, aren’t the only option on the table. “It’s going to be an exchange of ideas,” Ski Utah president Nathan Rafferty confirmed today. “It’s a discussion of options.”

Rafferty explained that Huntsman’s office wants to plan now for a burgeoning ski and snowboard resort industry in Utah. “Now that we’ve surpassed four million skier days,” said Rafferty, referencing last winter’s record-setting attendance at Utah resorts, “we’d rather plan now for the future than look back later at mistakes we might make.”

Utah ski resorts have set attendance records for the past three consecutive winters, gaining share on market-leader Colorado, which received approximately 12 million skier visits last winter. Utah’s ski resorts currently rank fourth in the U.S. for visitation behind Colorado, California and Vermont.

An unidentified source has allowed a document entitled “AltaBright Tunnel and CottonPark Interconnect Talking Points”, purportedly originating from the Governor’s office, to be circulated on the Internet today. The document projects that Utah’s ski industry is heading toward the six million skier-day mark, and cites a desire to avoid traffic congestion problems plaguing ski resort access via I-70 in Colorado and I-80 to the Lake Tahoe area of California. The memo forms an invitation to the Governor’s meeting extended to the “25 most influential people in Government Tourism and Ski Industry (Salt Lake & Summit Counties & representatives from State Government).”

Alta Ski Area and Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort are already connected via ski lifts and trails, as are Solitude and Brighton. Park City Mountain and Deer Valley share two sides of the same ridge, and The Canyons is but one potential lift ride away from Solitude. As the crow flies, Park City is a mere four miles from Brighton, yet it presently requires a 44-mile drive to travel in winter from one to the other. Utah routes 190 and 224 traverse 9,700-foot Guardsman Pass to connect the two in summer, but the road is presently not maintained for winter travel. Brighton is but two miles from Alta, although traveling from one to the other currently requires one to descend the length of Big Cottonwood Canyon and ascend Little Cottonwood Canyon, a one-way journey of 26 miles.

Many skiers have long held the dream of connecting Utah’s seven Salt Lake and Park City-area ski resorts via lifts, a concept certain to draw the ire of a myriad of groups, from the environmental organization Save Our Canyons to the region’s backcountry skier and snowboarder population. The tunnel proposal is but one way to connect the resorts more directly, and potentially could garner support from those opposed to linking the resorts via lifts and trails. “For discussions like these to be productive you need to hear from all sides, and it’s imperative to include environmental groups like Save Our Canyons,” Rafferty acknowledged.

The AltaBright tunnel idea involves a single bore through the mountains connecting the two. Connecting Brighton and Park City could be accomplished via a similar tunnel or by winterizing Guardsman Pass via snow sheds to protect the highway from avalanches, similar to the method employed on Rogers Pass in British Columbia.

Vehicle access into Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons is frequently hampered by avalanche activity, and proposals to be discussed would provide an alternate means of travel to access Alta, Brighton, Snowbird and Solitude. Tunnels would provide a more environmentally-friendly method to add vehicle capacity, and would allow highway travel between each resort to require no more than 20 minutes.

The Wasatch Mountains of northern Utah are already criss-crossed by a series of long-abandoned mining tunnels. The cost of an AltaBright Tunnel is estimated at $250 million, although savings could be realized by utilizing an existing mining tunnel. Costs estimated for a CottonPark Interconnect range from $50 million to $150 million, depending on the connection method employed. Ideas being circulated for funding include user tolls, designation of a Value Capture District, and federal funding.

The “AltaBright Tunnel and CottonPark Interconnect Talking Points” memo indicates that Huntsman wishes to convene on Nov. 3 to “vision” and discuss the proposal, thereafter forming groups to study and implement the proposal.

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