Utah’s Mountain Accord puts a modern transportation vision on the fast-track.

By Bart Taylor | Jul 22, 2014

Front Range skiers fortunate enough to experience Utah’s terrific resorts just east of Salt Lake City return to Colorado with varying degrees of envy, often of the terrain, as great as it is, but also of the commute. Residents of greater Salt Lake City have a 30 to 40 minute drive up I-80 or Little Cottonwood canyon to a parking lot - and sanity.

Denver’s intrepid day-skiers can only dream. Catch a bad break or leave home after 7 a.m., and a two-to-three hour trip is the norm. Both ways. And today, traffic is often as bad in summer as winter.

But a coalition of Utah policy-makers is worried that population growth will create a similar civic headache along the Wasatch Front (Utah’s Front Range) and have set in motion a process to manage the impact of people and use. Called Mountain Accord, the program is designed to address transportation, economic, environmental, and recreational impacts of development in the central Wasatch Range.

Laynee Jones is the program manager for Mountain Accord, and in a conversation last week quickly got to the issue that has stymied similar efforts in Colorado.

“So far there has been a lot of support to get people out of cars and onto transit”, Jones says. “Envision Utah paved the way for the general public and elected officials to support a deliberate pattern of growth that includes transit. Many Utah officials have witnessed first-hand how transit systems in other countries like Switzerland can impact quality of life,” she added, “and while we haven’t had the study yet that estimates cost, we know better transit will be a part of the solution”.

To be sure, the expense, environmental and technical challenges of an integrated transit system from Denver to Vail is a scale much larger than what Utah’s facing. But as a practical matter, it seems the Mountain Accord coalition has crossed an important threshold. In Colorado, the debate about mass transit as a transportation solution seems to quickly devolve into a circular argument about automobiles.

Layne credits the “unconventional” process ushered in by Mountain Accord for progress, but only after two separate, controversial issues provided incentive. “We’d been studying transportation solutions and slowly gaining traction, but the wilderness bill, then the SkiLink idea were a catalyst. They were the proverbial ‘straw that broke the camels’ back.”

SkiLink, now called One Wasatch, would connect seven of Utah’s iconic ski areas just east of Salt Lake City with a series of new lifts, but only after the sale and development of public lands. Environmental groups, in particular, argue the benefits of the project are overhyped and have pushed back.

Laynee Jones

“What the wilderness bill and SkiLink provided was a wake-up call, that a piecemeal approach to development was not the way to do it”, Jones says. “We’re so used to operating within institutional silos. Considering these issues in the context of a wider development plan was the right thing to do.”

But can a process overcome the technical and cost challenges that have also bedeviled Colorado’s transportation efforts? Jones seems to understand the degree of difficulty. “As Colorado knows better than most, highway corridors and transit don’t often fit well together.”

A game-changer for Utah may be the sheer number of stakeholders involved in the program - part of the “unconventional” methodology of Mountain Accord. “We’re identifying the wilderness areas to protect and conducting joint studies of each component of the program, a scenario planning phase, with about 250 people participating across four committees - transportation, recreation, economy and environmental - each focused on their ecosystem,” Jones explains. “We’ll then layer the committee analysis on top of each other in October.”

If all goes well, the process will generate actionable recommendations soon thereafter. “In January we should have highly scaled maps that will identify the transportation corridors on which to start an EIS (an Environmental Impact Statement, required by federal law),” Jones says.

Of course nothing that Jones describes ensures that skiers will be flying into Salt Lake City anytime soon, to board a high-speed rail line that whisks them to Park City in fifteen minutes or less. Jones says a three-year timeframe on the EIS would be “very optimistic”.

A final decision on Mountain Accord’s transportation elements is also dependent on other factors, like cost. Coloradans have experienced sticker shock already. The financial equation is complex. Utah’s economy, like Colorado’s, is currently strong. But forecasting the region’s appetite for a major public works project today, in three to five years, is an inexact proposition.

Yet the prospect of a Swiss-like transportation model along the eastern front of the Rockies, in the central Wasatch Mountains, is incredibly compelling. It should be easy for all westerners to root for the success of Mountain Accord. Taking preemptive action to avoid the pratfall of Colorado’s I-70’s experience is reason enough. The positive development impact could be staggering, playing into a regional lifestyle brand that’s already forecast to attract millions of new residents in the decades to come. Residents who deserve a modern transportation infrastructure.

Regardless of the commuter-envy it may inspire on the eastern side of the Divide.