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I just got back from a ski trip to the Wasatch Mountains outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. Utah is known for its world-renowned skiing, and the powder was great. But, while there, I never stayed in any of the Mountain Villages, or fancy hotels, rather than Park City or Deer Valley, I stayed in Kimball Junction and Cottonwood Heights. Both towns, suburbs of Park City and Salt Lake City, respectively, center largely around budget accommodations, suburban office parks, etc. But, the real unique thing about this trip was one of the things that really impressed me about the resorts in this area. All 6 resorts (Park City, Deer Valley, Brighton, Solitude, Alta and Snowbird) had quality bus connections, running all winter, 7 days a week, at up to (or above) 15 minute frequencies. Park City, a town with only 8,300 people, has 14 bus lines, including multiple with 15 min or more frequency. Cottonwood Heights, a part of Salt Lake County has 3 “ski bus” lines, all running at 15 min headways during peak periods, part of the Utah Transit Authority’s ski bus system, with 9 lines serving 5 ski areas, and connecting SLC and the town of Park City.

Park City

Park City, one of the most well known ski towns in the US, home to the Utah Olympic Park, and main venue of the Salt Lake City Olympics, has a fare-free transit system, with many routes across the area, serving the many base areas of the nearby ski resorts of Deer Valley & Park City, sectors of the main town, and suburban areas. The town of Park City has been at the fore-front of ski towns fighting Climate Change, pledging to remove their carbon footprint by 2032, through programs including Electric Buses, solar and wind farms creating a renewable energy grid for the town and surrounding ski areas, and land preservation, fighting the continuous development of a ski town running out of snow. This year has been especially bad on the surrounding ski resorts, grass & rocks continue to poke through the snow, many trails and areas remain closed due to lack of snow. Ironically, Vail Resorts, the owner of Park City Mountain Resort, the largest and most prominent ski area in the region, continues to fund Anti-Climate Change Politicians and PACs advocating against Climate Regulation.

Cottonwood

Little & Big Cottonwood Canyons are home to some of the most legendary skiing in the world, though the two most prominent ski areas, Alta & Snowbird are home to much smaller ski towns, which can hardly be called towns at all. Cottonwood is actually located in the general Salt Lake City area, and therefore relies on the Salt Lake City Regional Transit Authority, or the Utah Transit Authority, UTA for short. UTA runs ‘ski buses’ which run on higher fares, and have special ski racks inside them. The buses generally run from one transit center near the city center, then visit multiple small park and rides, which usually only are served by ski buses, before heading to the ski areas (usually serving two ski areas, and then heading back along the same route. The buses run all day in both directions, at peak (towards the mountain right before opening, and towards town around closing) have 15 min headways. Hotels in the area have small shuttles that run to the park & rides, helping visitors use ski buses instead of driving.

Now, you’re probably thinking, why is this guy writing an article about Utah Ski Buses in a Seattle Transit Blog? Well, I think Utah has set a wonderful example. The Seattle Area is home to 3 ski areas within 2 hours, receiving massive visitation, some among the top 15 in the country. Summit at Snoqualmie, at the county line of King & Kittitas Counties, Crystal Mountain, in Pierce County, & Stevens Pass, which has all of its base facilities in King County, but a few lifts reach over into Chelan County. Sadly, largely due to the fact our county borders rely heavily on Mountain Passes, public transit access to these ski areas would be difficult, and that is one big reason it is yet to exist today. But, I’m hopeful. King County Metro already runs buses to North Bend (the closest town to Snoqualmie) & Enumclaw (the closest town to Crystal Mtn) & Community Transit runs buses to Gold Bar, but not to Skykomish, the closest town to Stevens Pass, largely due to the fact that Highway 2 dips into King County there. All of the ski areas are outside Sound Transit’s district, so new bus routes would have to rely on local transit networks.

King County Metro Route 960

This route will run from Eastgate P&R or Issaquah Transit Center (Eastgate would yield better connections to existing services and less connections, while Issaquah would offer a shorter ride time and still ensure a 2 seat ride from Downtown Seattle vis the 554 until East Link opens) or from South Bellevue Station (once it opens) via Eastgate Freeway Station & Issaquah Transit Center (once East Link opens this option will be the only option with a 2 seat ride from Seattle). You could start this bus from Seattle, which would be ideal for passengers bring skis and other equipment, but would result in a longer ride, and a more difficult starting point. It will stop at (optional stops italicized): Preston Park & Ride, North Bend Park & Ride, get off at I-90 exit 54, Summit East/Nordic Center, (daytime only) Silver Fir (daytime only), Summit Central, Summit West & Alpental. It could easily stop at the current Snoqualmie shuttle stops, and as an incentive for Snoqualmie to support the project, could serve as a replacement for the shuttle, having a quick layover at Alpental and turning back to the Seattle area via all 4 base areas. The route will run from December 5th to April 1st (possibly earlier with closing dates tentative). It would likely start Weekends only, and another special route (possibly 963) could be made for weekday travel, as Summit East is closed all weekdays (except Holidays), Summit West is closed Monday-Tuesday, & Night only Wednesday-Friday & Alpental is closed Monday.

King County Metro Route 961

This route will run from Enumclaw to Crystal Mountain. It may stop in Greenwater, or other places along the way. While the route would be in Pierce County much of the way, it could just be viewed as an Enumclaw Community Shuttle service, serving King County. It could be extended Northwest to a largely Transit Center to connect with Seattle/Eastside transit riders such as Auburn, Kent, or, optimally, Angle Lake/Tukwila Intl Blvd Link Station. Less realistic due to the distance of Crystal Mountain and lack of proximity to civilization or King County.

Community Transit/King County Metro Route 962

Hopefully a cooperation from the two, would travel through both counties from Lynnwood or Everett Station to Monroe to Stevens Pass. Can supplement existing Community Transit 270/271. Again, less realistic due to distance factor and transfers. Bringing skis on a commuter route up to Lynnwood or Everett could be difficult. Would travel through Snohomish & King Counties.

So, that’s my article. In conclusion, ski buses can help supplement one of the few currently almost car-only activities. Our ski areas already face overcrowding issues, and parking issues, with Stevens Pass even rejecting further skiers due to Parking Lots becoming full before the place even opens. This solution could have drastic positive effects for both the ski areas and skiers. Even if my plan is downsized to just serving park and rides for skiers to provide extra parking for the ski areas, it would help take cars off the road and help overcrowding issues.

18 Replies to “Transit & Skiing”

  1. Switzerland has comprehensive transit throughout the country including to ski resorts. And in the novel “Ecotopia”, about a West Coast eco-state seceding from the country in the 1970s, the reporter enters the country near a ski resort (e.g., Tahoe) and takes a (wooden) skiers’ bus to the main transit to the capital, San Francisco. (There the streets are very quiet because there are no cars, only bicycles.) So I’m all for comprehensive transit.

    However, getting from here to there is a big problem. Neither Metro nor Community Transit have any spare funds for ski trains. Both of them have long-range plans which are a major improvement and must be realized, but Metro’s at least is unfunded. It will need a new countywide tax or the cities will have to fund it. Ski buses on top of that would be another major expense.

    But heres a few things to start your plan with. Metro’s 2040 plan has all-day Express routes from Enumclaw to Auburn and Renton. While that doesn’t get to Link, there’s RapidRide from Auburn to Federal Way, RapidRide from Renton to Rainier Beach, and Express from Renton to downtown and SLU. (The latter is quite a trip: 3rd – Pine – Boren – Denny – Westlake – Harrison – 5th N – Mercer – Smith Cove.) From North Bend and/or Snoqualmie there are three Expresses: one to Issaquah and Mercer Island (Link), another to Redmond (Link), and the third to Auburn (to go from one ski resort to another?).

    I’ve never skied so I don’t know much about the operations here. I know people from here take ski vacations to Whistler, Sun Valley, Aspen, and Utah, but I didn’t know other people take ski vacations here, I thought it was mostly local people. If we do get a lot of out-of-state ski tourists, then that would be money to the ears of county/state economists, if we get a reputation of having good transit to ski areas it might attract tourists. (Some local skiers may not think that’s a good thing if it means more crowds.) At the same time, Metro’s and Community Transit’s mandate is to the taxpayers in their district and the tourists there. While ski buses would benefit them, other things inside the district would benefit them more and are urgently needed. So i don’t think ski buses can be prioritized that way. It would have to be some dedicated mechanism, a county or state tourism-booster tax.

    Are Utah’s ski resorts the same distance from town as Washington’s are, or are they closer? That may be a factor.

    We have a climate-friendly governor now, so ti would be worth suggesting it to him, and point out that this is a way to lower our carbon footprint. It might get less opposition than a carbon tax because there’s a tangible benefit (the ski buses) rather than just the black hole of a gas tax. And if Utah is already doing it. One of the reasons for Seattle’s new emphasis on cyclectracks is that our peer cities; e.g., Portland and New York. are further along with them and they’re a competitive edge to attracting people and companies.

    1. Washington ski areas are much less touristic than Utah, or pretty much any other large state with skiing (Oregon, Montana, British Columbia, Colorado, Vermont, etc), as no ski area here never had a big resortification, nothing here ever turned into a Whistler or a Park City. But, I think there is a large enough local base for a ski bus, even just with the employment these areas produce, I’m sure they would be happy to open Employee lots to the public. Utah’s Ski Resorts tend to be around the same distance from the city center as say, Snoqualmie (though much closer than Crystal or Stevens), but Salt Lake City sprawls continuously into the surrounding valley, up to the mountains, meaning suburban parts of it can be quite close to the mountains, towns the size of, say Renton, closer than North Bend is to Snoqualmie. Sadly, a ski-rail service would be near impossible, Rail Tracks only pass through Stevens & Stampede Passes, but are under tunnels anywhere close to ski areas. Though, if anyone is interested, Amtrak runs an interesting Ski Train to Winter Park in Colorado from Denver (https://www.amtrak.com/winter-park-express).

  2. I don’t ski. I do know people that do elsewhere. The often use a subscription bus service to get to a slope.

    I see that Seattle has some of these private ski bus subscription buses running already.(http://seattleskishuttle.com/schedule-routes/)

    I’m not sure if the public should be subsidizing these. A better case for subsidizing recreational shuttles could be made for the local casinos, which are closer, employ more people, require less baggage and have much higher daily usage. Still, I think transit funds could better elsewhere.

    1. Yes, but the private market is currently such a monopolized system that the transport is ridiculously expensive. For that link you provided one-way shuttle rides cost $50-$55 dollars. Even if the special transit fare was $10 (Utah’s was 4.25, i think the standard fare was 2.50), it’d be massive savings. I just thought it was a good idea, even just for Snoqualmie due to its relative proximity to current transit service in North Bend and on the eastside. Also, all of the ski areas around us are expensive significant overcrowding problems, Stevens Pass has rejected people only an hour or so after they open due to the fact all parking is full, and Snoqualmie & Crystal rely on distant overflow lots with small shuttle services that aren’t sufficient. These bus services could rely on funds from ski areas partially, or even just charge an additional fare that could help pay for the majority of the program. The potential I think is enormous, Snoqualmie in a mediocre year attracts more than 700,000 skiers, more than the population of Seattle.

      1. If you scroll down, while one-way transportation is $50-55, round trip is only $55-$65, so it’s not quite as a bad as looks.

        That said, it’s still pretty bad. With two people, it is actually cheaper to rent a Zipcar than to ride the bus. Even if just one person, the flexibility of driving oneself and being able to arrive/leave at any time is just $20 more than the bus fare. And, that’s for someone that doesn’t own a car.

        Only the most ardent non-drivers are going to pay something like this.

        Which is quite a shame. A few weeks ago, I actually did go to Crystal on a bus, but it was a charter bus paid for by my company for an outing with a bunch of co-workers. It was quite convenient.

  3. I love the idea of a weekend ski bus from Everett Station. It could even make an intermediate stop in Monroe to pick up at the park-and-ride there (which could attract Seattle drivers already trekking up SR 522).

    Link Transit in Chelan County runs free bus service to the Mission Ridge Ski Area (called SkiLink), though it caters more to employees than skiers.

    1. A park & ride in Monroe makes a ton of sense, as nearly everyone driving to Stevens Pass drives through Monroe anyways. Further, I don’t think the “ski bus” would need to go all the way to Everett – wouldn’t the existing CT 271/270 route get people from Everett to Monroe? The “ski bus” should align its schedule with the 271/270 for an easy transfer, but I don’t think the bus would need to drive all the way into Everett.

      Using the fairgrounds for excess parking on weekends could make a lot of sense, as those fields are basically unused during the ski season, I believe.

      1. Seattle to the Fairgrounds parking lot on the 512/271 is already over an hour an a half. And, that assumes you start downtown. If you have to ride *another* bus, just to get to the 512, now, you cross the two-hour mark. And, it gets worse. Those numbers assume a timed connection in Monroe. In the afternoon, a timed connection is virtually impossible because the traffic on highway 2 to get to Monroe, too unpredictable.

        Why does the bus take 2 hours to get to Monroe, when it’s only a 45 minute drive? There’s no one answer, it’s basically a “death by 1000 paper cuts. Every bus stop, every loop into and out of a P&R along the way, having to travel out the way to get from home to downtown, just to get to the 512, the wait time for the connection at Everett, all the stoplights in and around Snohomish that a car on the freeway doesn’t have to deal with, not to mention the fact that going through Everett is a lot more miles than taking highway 522 through Woodinville to begin with.

        Each little piece doesn’t sound like much, by itself, but it all adds up, and the end result is that a ski bus from Monroe, connecting to CT and ST would result in a totally unworkable schedule. You’d have to either have a really long day (leave home at 5 AM, get back at 11 PM), or spend nearly 4 hours traveling, only to have less than an hour of skiing before it’s time to turn around and go back.

        Once, I actually had a hiking group that was meeting in Monroe P&R to carpool to somewhere near Stevens Pass. Because of all of the above reasons, I took a Car2Go, even though it cost close to $100 to leave it sitting at the P&R all day. Because the bus options to Monroe *really* *are* *that* *bad*.

        Bottom line – if the goal of a ski bus is to get people without cars, just going to Monroe isn’t going to cut it. When Link reaches Lynnwood, it can probably get away with stopping at Lynnwood. But, for the time being, if a ski bus wants customers, anything short of going all the way to Seattle is a non-starter.

      2. @asdf2, how about a ski bus stopping at Monroe P&R and then continuing to Woodinville P&R for a transfer to the 522? (And then perhaps continuing to UW Bothell for another transfer.) That’d be a much better connection to Seattle and also the Eastside.

  4. From a transit point-of-view, one thing the resorts do is bring lots of skiers into close proximity. Around here there’s no such natural concentration of skiers — even if people that choose to live closer to the mountains are more likely than others to enjoy skiing, on any given day most of the population isn’t on a ski vacation!

    Hiking shuttles have also been discussed, and I think the consequences are a bit similar. If you’re trying to provide access to car-less urbanites you have to go all the way to the city, but that’s a long trip, expensive to provide per-passenger. Considering the long distance and quantity of luggage involved it wouldn’t surprise me if the private ski-bus operators’ fares really reflected high costs. If you’re trying to alleviate crowded parking, weekend trips from the nearest big P&R might be the ticket, but there are tradeoffs between distance to skiing, P&R size, and weekend transit service.

    Overflow lots have obvious advantages if the main goal is parking management: shuttle trips are short, and you don’t send drivers all the way down the mountain when the main lot is full. Maybe if most of the traffic is coming from one direction you could issue parking updates on the radio and cut folks off at a P&R closer to home — but a longer shuttle trip makes frequency and service span much more expensive!

    1. Parking management is a big reason for the trail shuttles – whether its tiny lots at King County parks, or national parks getting overwhelmed during peak season. I believe the ski resorts suffer from the same problem – I had a friend get turned away from Stevens a few weeks ago b/c the lot was full.

      And the existing P&Rs are a great resource because they are underutilized exactly when ski parking is most needed – weekends and holidays. And they also provide a natural “clustering” point for transit service – the number of people that will take a bus to a ski resort without first driving to a park & ride will be very limited. I think you’d even see more people take an Uber home than try to catch the CT 270 or ST 554 home.

      I think it you switched people’s mindset that parking off mountain (in Issaquah, Monroe, etc) was the default option, and parking adjacent to the resort was the “premium” option that cost more than riding the shuttle, you would get plenty of people to use the P&R, no need for a radio “update.” And I think the resorts would prefer to not have to maintain large parking lots.

      Another benefit to providing parking “off mountain” is for the many people who either have cars who can’t handle snow well, or simply don’t want to deal with the tough drive up the mountain. I think many people would be happy to avoid dealing with the drive up the pass.

  5. I think a ski bus is one of those ideas that may make economic sense, once technology allows the buses to be operated autonomously. But, as long as you have to pay a human driver, it may be too expensive here.

    There are several reasons why this is the case. The first problem is what does the bus do in the morning, after it arrives at the ski slope? Options include having the bus sit in the ski area parking lot all day, or sending it back to do another run. Both require paying the bus driver for several hours of labor each day, for when the bus isn’t even carrying any passengers.

    Another factor is that, outside of driver labor, once you get beyond a four-person carpool, the cost per person of operating the vehicle doesn’t really decrease as the passenger load increases, since each additional passenger requires a larger (and more expensive) vehicle to provide room. Furthermore, in a world where insurance cost is largely dominated by medical bills, you can’t just insure a bus the way you would a car – if the bus gets into an accident, the insurance company’s liability gets multiplied by the number of passengers on board – so, in order for the insurance business to be sustainable, the premiums have to increase proportionally to the bus’s passenger capacity, as well. The fact that the bus is going to be regularly driving on snow further increases the risk of something happening (and hence, the bus’s insurance cost).

    Finally, there’s the cascading effect where the higher the price, the fewer people want to ride, which means the price has to increase further, so even fewer want to ride, so the price increases further, until only the few who are both die-hard skiiers *and* lack drivers licenses are left.

    So, to sum everything up, if the private shuttles basically involve carrying 10 people on a 50-person bus all the way from downtown Seattle to Stevens or Crystal, paying the insurance premiums to cover the full 50-person passenger load getting maimed in an accident, and paying the driver to sit there with the bus for 6-8 hours, for every 4 hours (round trip) the bus is actually moving…yes, I can actually believe that $50-$55 a person, each way, may end up just barely breaking even.

    The Utah example is very different from Seattle, in that the length of the ski bus run is much shorter, due to the ski towns being so close to the slopes.

    1. When you look at Snoqualmie the distance from North Bend, Issaquah or Bellevue is quite comparable to the distance from the transit centers the UTA ski buses run from to the slopes. The main difference is that the mountains start earlier in Seattle, but towns actually reach out about the same distance. Also, for the labor issue, I would expect the bus to continue to be part of the system, it’s not entirely required for buses to have much special equipment, and snow isn’t always on the road, so chains would only be need some days. In Utah, ski buses run all day, back and forth, shuttling passengers (employees, day skiers, tourists, etc) to and from the ski area at any time necessary. While their frequency may only be replicated for peak hours (8:30-9:30 AM to the ski area and 3:00 PM to 4:15 PM back), it could be supported partially by the existing system, since ski peaks are a bit later and earlier than commute peaks. Also, most skiers are visiting on weekends, when they are more spare buses to send up the pass.

  6. A thought: Currently the ski resort shuttles are ridiculously expensive. The local transit agencies don’t have the spare funds to provide recreational shuttles to expensive ski resorts. The ski resorts operate largely on LEASED government land. Okay, so how about this as a solution, work with the US Forest Service to actively reduce the footprint of the ski parking areas. Drive demand in the direction that forces the ski resorts to offer affordable transportation. If they want to continue to operate a ski resort with enough patrons to make a profit, they’ll need to offer a transit service that is convenient and affordable.

  7. What concerns me about the Stevens Pass shuttle is the distance and also the fact that the Snohomish County TBD does not extend past Gold Bar. While King County could conceivably cover the King County portion, there still lies a gap, and how would this benefit King County to justify it to King County taxpayers when Snohomish County users would use it more. Just a thought.

    And we have to be cost sensitive. Who pays? The county/ CT? Hopefully it’s not all burdened on the taxpayers.

    1. Who pays? I’d imagine the ski resort itself would pay, as a way to attract more skiers. Right now on busy weekends, they have to turn people away when the parking lots get full.

      Either that, or the TBD would need to be extended to include the resort, but I don’t think that makes sense.

    2. Also, the ski resort could charge for parking at the ski area, and provide free parking at the park & ride (e.g. in Monroe, Issaquah, etc.) – that would both nudge people to take the bus while also generate funds to run the bus.

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