Little Cottonwood Canyon ski resorts need to mind their own business

It is up to the resorts, not the taxpayers, to ease traffic congestion on the mountain.

(Suzanne Paylor | The Salt Lake Tribune) Motorists have trouble driving in Little Cottonwood Canyon during a storm on Friday, November 29, 2019.

These last few weekends we experienced some of the 12-plus congested traffic days in Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC). Uphill traffic was slow on one snowless morning. By 11 a.m., Snowbird’s lots were full, cars parking on both sides of the highway. While Snowbird was a mess, Alta, with its reserved parking, still had open space.

In the afternoon, downhill congestion kicked in well before 4 p.m. Cars creeped down the hill, continuous brake lights in play, creating the infamous “red snake” and, on this weekend, without a single snowflake on the highway. The resorts had a great attendance day, but they have a business problem: too many vehicles. They need to mind their business problems and solve them.

The ski industry is currently challenged by shrinking snow totals, shrinking staff and shrinking customer base. Like all businesses, it must adapt or die. And LCC resorts face additional challenges. The very nature of this narrow scenic canyon with its single entrance/exit makes for bumper-to-bumper congestion as upwards to 15,000 people transit in a tight time window.

Most skiers want first tracks and to stay late to maximize their experience. Briefly, that’s the problem: How to accommodate the morning “starting gun” and the afternoon “flush.” Solving it is a business problem, and it is Snowbird and Alta’s business problem.

Some say the ski industry contributes to Utah’s tax base and therefore taxpayers should solve their problem. This is wrong. First, Snowbird and Alta are not the “ski industry.” There are 15 resorts in total. All contribute to our community. Second, this congestion from car volume is not a community problem, it’s a business problem.

The IKON pass, the Mountain Collective pass and an increasing Utah population have all contributed to increased vehicular traffic. Regardless of the cause, additional skiers with cars aggravate traffic conditions on peak ski days. Good marketing created this problem. Good resort management should solve it.

Take this example: Chick-fil-A’s drive-through popularity in Sugar House has contributed to blocked access to neighboring businesses and backed up traffic onto 2100 South. In a recent community meeting, Chick-fil-A didn’t ask the community to solve their growth problem. They promised to fix it. They pledged to invest in business changes to correct the situation. They will solve their own problem.

So, what can these resorts do to fix their problem? There are many actions they can take to reduce private vehicle use, encourage public transit and improve customer flow. As a management consultant, I have spent years helping businesses identify solutions. Consultants usually charge for this service, but for my friends at Alta and Snowbird, it’s pro bono. Here are some ideas that they can implement directly:

  • Institute parking by reservation only on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and specified holidays. Alta has implemented this and has seen vehicle occupancy go up and vehicle numbers decline.

  • Redesign inefficient, disconnected parking lots for better space utilization and management. Snowbird would find square/rectangle lots are more efficient and can be managed more effectively. It may also be time to consider multi-level parking structures.

  • Reduce private vehicle use by requiring large scheduled organized groups to shuttle by bus reducing personal car traffic.

  • Offer variable ski pass options with different start times, stop times and durations to minimize peak traffic flow (“starting gun” and “flush”). Consider premium pricing for premium tracks.

  • Provide better après ski options to entice skiers to stay slope-side during the “flush.”

  • Reward hi-occupancy car-pooling with close-in reserved parking locations.

  • Consider variable reserved parking fees based on vehicle occupancy. Solitude follows this model.

  • Work with UDOT to implement original Mountain Accord recommendations to upgrade down-canyon parking lots (White Pine, etc.) and eliminate on-highway parking.

  • Institute periodic assessment of all business practices to identify those delivering unanticipated consequences contributing to road congestion.

Some of these changes will be easy, some challenging, some expensive, some almost free. Change is not always easy, but to survive and prosper it is always necessary.

Business problems belong to the businesses that create them. They should be solved by those businesses in a way that does not negatively impact the activity of others or the pocketbooks of taxpayers. Alta and Snowbird need to mind their own business.

Michael Marker is a retired organization development consultant who specialized in business process optimization and work system redesign. He taught organizational behavior at the University of San Francisco as an adjunct professor and is on the board of Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

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