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Sandy Journal

Are electric buses a viable solution for Little Cottonwood traffic problems?

Feb 22, 2022 08:07PM ● By Justin Adams

The electric bus was able to make it to the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon without a hitch, and even recharged most of its depleted battery on the way down. (Justin Adams/City Journals)

By Justin Adams | [email protected]

A group of local elected officials, community activists and college students boarded a bus last month for a ride up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Their goal? To show that electric buses can be a viable solution for the canyon’s traffic problems.

The Utah Department of Transportation is currently in the middle of the process of narrowing down its list of proposals. From an original list of five possibilities, the department narrowed its consideration down to two: an enhanced bus system (along with widening the roads in the canyon) and the construction of a gondola.

Throughout its Environmental Impact Statement report, UDOT’s analysis of the enhanced bus system presupposes that those buses would run on diesel fuel. An assumption that Cottonwood Heights City councilwoman Ellen Birrell says is based on a myth that electric buses don’t have what it takes to make it up the steep slopes of the canyon.

“We’re going to urge UDOT to revisit their assessment,” Birrell told the City Journals.

The bus ride was organized by the University of Utah student group, Students for the Wasatch. They coordinated with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall to use an electric bus that her office borrowed from California for a few days to demonstrate its versatility and viability to local legislators and elected officials.

So how did the bus fare with the challenge of climbing Little Cottonwood Canyon?

 (Sandy City Mayor Monica Zoltanski chats with a group of student activists from the University of Utah prior to boarding an electric bus for a ride up Little Cottonwood Canyon. (Justin Adams/City Journals)

“We zipped up!” Birrell said. “And it was so quiet we could use our inside voices. It was delightful.”

“I would describe it as clean, fast, quiet and comfortable,” said Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski.

“I was skeptical, to tell you the truth, whether it could handle the climb up Little Cottonwood Canyon, but this bus had no problem.”

Not only was the bus able to keep up with other traffic as it made its way up the mountain, but it was able to recharge its battery on the way down through a process called regenerative braking. Because of this, the bus was able to make it up and down the canyon using only 3% of its battery.

Alta Mayor Roger Bourke, who hopped on board the bus for the final few minutes of the ride, was impressed with the experience and touted the vehicle’s benefits for the environment.

“We are faced with a worldwide catastrophe if we don’t get a handle on these greenhouse gasses,” he said. “And this is the way to get a handle on it. This can be charged with renewable energy, which we’re getting more and more of. That’s the future.”

Birrell noted that the solution to traffic problems in the canyon doesn’t necessarily have to be contained to one big project that costs hundreds of million dollars, like the gondola or road expansion. Instead, she suggested that a better strategy would be to adopt multiple smaller changes. One change she said has already started working is the ski resort’s implementation of reserved parking spots.

“With Alta ski area having reserved parking for all their parking spaces, there has not been a traffic congestion problem this ski season,” she said. “Some of the logical and practical solutions that many of us want to see phased in, that would be much less expensive than a gondola or lane expansion, are already reducing the traffic.”

A fleet of electric buses could also theoretically be purchased and deployed by next ski season, noted Students for the Wasatch member Claudia Wiese.

“It can be an immediate solution, as opposed to spending years on a project,” she said.