Toll roads proposed for Little and Big Cottonwood canyons

SALT LAKE CITY -- Faced with increasing congestion inside two of the state's most popular canyons, the president of the Utah State Senate is proposing turning Little and Big Cottonwood canyons into toll roads.

"The congestion we face in those canyons is extreme," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

The roads up Big and Little Cottonwood canyons lead to some of the state's most popular ski resorts. In the summer and winter, bumper-to-bumper traffic is not out of the ordinary. The senate president's district includes Little Cottonwood Canyon, and he said he has witnessed the congestion.

"Our impacts are being felt now in those canyons and they’re a treasure for us. It’s the 'Greatest Snow on Earth' and that’s where you find it, it’s in those Cottonwood canyons," he said.

That's why Sen. Niederhauser took the rare step of filing a bill himself to expand toll collection authority. He filed Senate Bill 71 ahead of the 2018 legislative session.

In an interview with FOX 13 on Tuesday, he specifically named the Cottonwood canyons as toll roads.

"Tolling is going be a big part of what we do to incentivize people to carpool and get on a bus to get up Little Cottonwood Canyon," he said.

As Senate President, Sen. Niederhauser has significant weight on Utah's Capitol Hill and he said he anticipated some pushback on his proposal. Ski Utah -- the marketing arm of the state's multi-billion dollar ski and snowboard industry -- was surprised when told of Sen. Niederhauser's bill and intentions for the canyons.

"We're trying to find the best solution for transportation up the canyons. A toll is an option for that process," said spokesman Paul Marshall. "Right now, it’s still in the research stage for us."

There's been a lot of talk about what to do with traffic in the canyons. The idea of a train connecting the two will not likely happen because it's very expensive, the Senate President said. Tolling, however, could encourage carpooling and help with parking problems at the canyons. He said technology has advanced so it would not be toll booths set up along the road, but suggested an automatic collection of any fee.

The state of Utah has had the authority to toll for years, Sen. Niederhauser pointed out. While the idea of paying a toll to drive down a road is more common east of the Mississippi, it's less so in the West (although technically, the HOV lane on I-15 carries a toll). There is also a toll road in Weber County.

Faced with a growing population and continual demands on Utah's roads, the Senate President acknowledged more roads across the state could be tolled.

"Tolling is actually going to be a bigger part of what we deal with our roads. We’re going to double in population over the next 30 years, and we’re going to need to have these kind of tools in our tool belt," he said.