As many of us know, highway SR 210 facilitates getting to and from Alta but, when conditions deteriorate, the road can make the trip very frustrating and even dangerous.
Recently, a number of factors converged so that getting down canyon on Thursday, December 27th, took far too long for far too many. Those of us responsible for the safety and convenience of the members of and visitors to our community are sorry that the experience was so problematic. We recognize the issues and we try to learn from each difficulty and improve the experience.
On the 27th exiting Alta’s parking areas took hours, and the trip down the canyon was stop and go. I drove home to Alta from my office at the University of Utah at about 6:30 pm; the red snake was impressive even by our standards and didn’t clear up until late at night. We were fortunate that no one was killed or injured during the event.
In investigating what went wrong, here’s what I’ve learned about some underlying conditions, over which no one has control:
- The highway is harder to keep clear during December, when the sun is lowest.
- When the temperature is as low as it was – single digits – salt applied to the road is much less effective than when the temperature is in the 20s.
- Once traffic begins to back up, it is difficult to maintain the road effectively because snowplows only work when they are moving.
- Holiday weeks are crowded.
- Rental vehicles often are not well-equipped.
Underlying conditions interact with how people behave:
- A clear road at the mouth of the canyon misleads people who may not realize how different the conditions are at the top of canyon.
- Too many drivers ignore 4×4 restrictions.
- When the parking lots are full, people park on the roads and when they head home they must perform a U-turn (or worse, a multi-point turn) across the lanes of traffic, interrupting the flow.
- People who have inadequately equipped vehicles, or who are inexperienced with winter driving, sometimes overcompensate by braking more than is needed or driving slower than they could.
These factors, though perhaps individually small, combine to create surprisingly large effects. To take one example, Alta’s Marshal Mike Morey informs me that each time a driver taps his or her brakes, a 3-second ripple delay is created for the subsequent vehicles. Assuming that each vehicle is 15 feet long and leaves a two car length interval to the car ahead, and that the distance from the Albion Grill to the mouth of the canyon is 8.6 miles, then there are about 600 cars on the road at once (if traffic is moving). If the first driver taps his or her brakes, the last driver can be delayed by 30 minutes! Clearly, the further upstream you are, the more you are delayed.
We know thae lack of information can make a frustrating situation downright infuriating. We try to communicate by Twitter – so please subscribe to @altacentral – but during events like we had on the 27th, our officers and dispatchers are very occupied with the various immediate tasks at hand, often safety related, so they are delayed sending out communication updates.
As in years past, on days we expect to be busy, we plan to meter traffic so that drivers can merge as smoothly as possible. Metering takes a lot of resources, however. At each intersection where we place officers, a crew of four is needed: one officer controls uphill traffic on SR 210 so that drivers can cross over to the downhill lane; a second officer controls the downhill traffic on SR 210; a third controls the cars coming out of the parking area; and a fourth is quarterbacking the situation. Entry 1 at Snowbird is a prime area for metering. So might be Entry 4, assuming the main road is open, but there can be avalanche danger at that intersection so we must be careful about stationing officers there. The Wildcat lot is another prime location. While the Town of Alta engages additional off-duty officers when we expect conditions to warrant the extra help, and the ski areas help defray the cost of doing so, our resources, both in terms of money and staff, are limited.
Away from where our officers were stationed, several slide-offs occurred on the 27th, starting at about 3 pm. Slide-offs can be nerve wracking and dangerous, of course, and create big problems and big delays for other drivers and pull resources away from routine traffic management.
When drivers behave badly, our officers are pulled away from helping the traffic flow easily for other reasons. When people are hungry and tired, impatience increases and tempers can ignite. On the 27th, there were a few confrontations between drivers and our officers that were rather ugly.
What can you do? Here are some ideas for you and your guests:
- Carpool to lower the number of vehicles in the canyon.
- Be sure only to drive adequately equipped vehicles and obey road restrictions.
- Head down canyon early.
- If stuck in the parking lots, park, turn off your engine, and wait for updates – running out of gas does no one any good. Head inside to wait if it is cold.
- Plan ahead and have some snacks and extra clothing and shoes with you.
- Keep your cool.
Finally, I want to thank all of Alta Ski Lifts’ parking crew and their counterparts at Snowbird. Day after day, they work hard to make the lots as efficient as possible. And thanks, too, to the lodges and their staff, who also helped out. I want to single out several people who kept a bad situation on the 27th from being even worse. Although those who got stuck in traffic may not have realized it, these individuals deserve our thanks:
- Station Foreman Jake Brown, who manages our canyon for UDOT and is passionate about his job.
- Deputy Marshals John Freeman and Kevin Payne, who worked very long hours under very difficult conditions.
- Marshal Mike Morey, who is incredibly committed to the safety of people in Alta and who is one of the hardest working and smartest problem solvers I have had the honor to work with.
- Dispatchers Hailey Griffin, Chris Templin and Heidi Wiemokly who handled a huge call volume from people needing help or seeking information or venting their frustration while communicating with the various people trying to manage the situation (officers, ski area managers, UDOT crews, etc).
- Lindsey Davenport and the crew at the Albion Grill, who managed to feed and shelter a very large number of people throughout the evening.
We always try to avoid dangerous and inconvenient road conditions in Alta and the canyon. We did not meet our goals on the 27th and we endeavor to do better. Thank you for your understanding and support.