A shuttle in Millcreek Canyon? Maybe…but not just yetNov 07, 2023 01:06PM ● By Ella Joy Olsen
Biker Bill Christensen says he’d love to see bike lanes to the top of Millcreek Canyon. (Ella Joy Olsen/City Journals)
Shuttle service in Millcreek Canyon was proposed long ago, there are many players involved, and funding is complicated. But things are happening.
“The secret about Utah is out and people are coming and staying. Easy access to the mountains from a major population center is one of the main reasons,” said Lindsey Nielsen, executive director of the Central Wasatch Commission (CWC). “With increased use, we see a need for different modes of transportation for our canyons.”
Millcreek Canyon, like the other canyons easily accessible from the Salt Lake Valley, has experienced exponentially increased visitation in recent years, and the U.S. Forest Service (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) supports the option of shuttle service in Millcreek Canyon. However, before the shuttle is even a consideration, the road, especially the narrow road above the Winter Gate, must be improved, as it currently cannot accommodate a bus or transport shuttle. Additionally, trailheads must be improved to accommodate an increase in visitors.
But is the shuttle a good idea?
“I love the shuttle in Zion National Park, and a shuttle in this canyon makes a lot of sense,” said Anna Kate Hammond, a Marmalade resident, while hiking at Elbow Fork on an autumn day. “It would be much more relaxing to arrive at the trailhead and not have to search for a parking spot. I do wonder about dogs on the shuttle, though.”
The construction project, slated to start in spring 2025, will provide the safety and reliability requirements of the upper canyon road via improvements to the roadway width, sightlines, drainage, crosswalks, uphill bike lanes (where possible), and parking areas, paving the way for a shuttle option.
The road above the Winter Gate, which is the access point to upper Millcreek Canyon, will be closed to vehicles and pedestrians during the period of construction, spring of 2025 through the fall of 2026. There will be a winter shutdown of construction activities allowing for ski grooming and pedestrian access on the roadway from mid-December to late-March.
“I bike up the canyon so I wouldn’t take the shuttle, but I would absolutely welcome a wider shoulder and the possibility of less traffic. Biking the road now, especially above the gate, feels dangerous,” said Bill Christensen, a Murray resident and mountain biker. “But my wife is a hiker, and I bet she’d ride a shuttle.”
There are many parties and involved, and interests to consider, so the project is complicated.
Millcreek Canyon is primarily federal forest land, but the road is county-owned and maintained. There are private businesses and residences that must also be considered in making upgrades.
In 2020, the U.S. Forest Service, Salt Lake County, and the city of Millcreek applied for a FLAP grant to explore the possibility for transportation improvements in upper Millcreek Canyon. The Federal Lands Access Program, also known as FLAP, was established by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to improve transportation facilities that provide access to, are adjacent to, or are located within federal lands.
FLAP grant funding for improvements in the upper canyon (only) was granted in 2021, in the amount of $19,600,000. The required local match is $4,276,200.
Even further back, in 2013, local elected leaders, transportation officials, the general managers of the Cottonwood Canyon ski resorts, private property owners, representatives from the environmental and recreational communities, adjacent cities (such as Millcreek) and others organized to develop a plan to sustain the Central Wasatch Mountain Range for generations to come and to plan for increased visitation and use of the mountains.
At that time, stakeholders identified four major issues affecting the longevity of the mountains: transportation, economy, recreation and environment, and created the Mountain Accord to address these issues.
One of the “transportation” action items identified in the accord was the need for increased public transportation options in Millcreek Canyon and a pilot shuttle program.
The Mountain Accord also created a government entity to carry out these mandates. That entity is the Central Wasatch Commission. “It is the job of the CWC to coordinate action items in the Wasatch Mountains while working with all interested parties including, in the case of Millcreek Canyon, the county,” Nielsen said. “The CWC would love to see a shuttle implementation on the docket for Millcreek. But a lot has to happen before then.”
The public is not entirely unified about the nature of the proposed changes.
Tom Diegel spoke as chair of the Central Wasatch Stakeholders Committee on Millcreek Canyon, a citizen’s advisory council to the CWC, at a recent county council meeting, claiming that, “Recent research shows that narrower roads and less striping makes for more attentive drivers and lowers the speeds, so some of the initial goals to improve the safety of the upper canyon have not been verified.”
County Councilman Jim Bradley added, “The U.S. Forest Service views their mission to get as many visitors into public lands, but on the other side of that coin is how many people should you get into a particular canyon? Is it time to look at ways to limit the use of Millcreek Canyon?”
Details regarding the upgrades are not fully finalized, but the construction is still slated to begin in 2025.
“It’s a complicated project and public comment has been going on for years,” said Catherine Kanter, deputy mayor of Regional Operations, in a recent county council meeting. “The FLAP grant money awarded to address the needs the Forest Service was articulating [about the necessary canyon improvements] is a first step toward a potential shuttle in the future.”
The county council will have a robust conversation about the proposed upgrades at a council meeting in late 2023 or early 2024, actual date TBD, and county council agendas can be found at: www.slco.org/council/agendas-minutes/.
For more specific details regarding upper Millcreek Canyon upgrades see: www.slco.org/regional-development/planning-transportation/plans-projects/upper-mill-creek-canyon-roa... λ