Park City Locals Will Be Able to Ride Their New Lifts Next Year… in Whistler
With no obvious resolution in sight, Vail moves two blocked lifts north to Canada
To support independent ski journalism, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Paid subscribers receive thousands of extra words of content each month, plus all podcasts three days before free subscribers.
A lift so long you can ride it from Utah to Canada - on a flatbed
In George Packer’s 2013 book, The Unwinding, he surveys an America beset with institutional and societal dysfunction. Cooperation and compromise are taboo concepts. Absolutism and extremism reign. Nothing of substance ever gets done.
The book is 430 pages, highly illuminating, and extremely depressing. It is, by the way, nonfiction. I could pluck any number of anecdotes from its pages to illustrate the hard-edge of modern America, but the story of Tampa’s doomed light-rail proposal best suits my purposes here:
There was one idea that inspired some people in Tampa: rail. Back when Tampa was going to be America’s Next Great City, none of its rivals around the Sunbelt – Charlotte, Phoenix, Salt Lake City – had commuter rail systems. Now they all did, leaving Tampa behind. Tampa had standing plans for a light rail line, funded by a sales tax increase, but the Hillsborough County Commission always refused to allow it onto the ballot. In 2010, the wind shifted. Mark Sharpe, the Republican county commissioner – a fitness buff, intense reader, and former navy intelligence officer with a crew cut – made light rail his cause, saying it would bring economic development and finally elevate Tampa Bay to the status that had eluded the area for a quarter century. …
Light rail looked like the streetcars, slower and cheaper than regular rail or subway trains. The plans called for forty-six miles of track, a single line from the airport through Westshore to downtown Tampa and then up to the University of South Florida and New Tampa. The tracks would follow some of the long-defunct tram routes that had once crisscrossed Tampa. In 2010, the Hillsborough County Commission finally voted to put a one-cent sales tax referendum on the November ballet.
[Tampa Bay Times reporter Mike] Van Sickler had loved trains ever since he was a teenager riding the Cleveland Rapid to Municipal Stadium and the Flats. He saw in light rail the answer to the sprawl that had brought Tampa down [in the 2008 housing collapse]. Building the tracks and stations would create jobs, but more important, light rail would change the pattern of living. People would get off the train and walk, and walking (without fear of traffic death) would change the urban landscape, away from the shopping plaza, the parking lot, the gas station, and the roadside sign to townhouses, cafes, bookstores, the kind of places that encouraged pedestrians to linger, and their presence would spur other businesses to cluster, and before long there would be density – Jane Jacobs’s heaven. Strangers would meet in nontraumatic accidental encounters and exchange ideas. Tampa would become the magnet for educated young people, tech start-ups, and corporate headquarters that its counterparts with commuter rail had already become, putting the economy on a sounder foundation than real estate had. The center of gravity would move back to the city, away from [subdivisions] Country Walk and Carriage Pointe, which would fade into irrelevance. If there was an answer to the fatal growth machine, it was rail.
In stepped a woman name Karen Jaroch, in Packer’s words a “stay-at-home mom, a churchgoer, a PTA member, and in every way an ordinary middle-class woman…” Frustrated with government spending and in thrall to small-government rhetoric, she launched a crusade against Tampa’s light rail:
The issue took over her life for the entire year 2010. She started a group called “No Tax for Tracks” and boned up by reading an antirail report from the Heritage Foundation. She argued that the system would cost too much, wouldn’t create jobs, wouldn’t have riders, had failed elsewhere, would burden the area with decades of debt. When a fact threatened to undercut one line of argument, she would switch to another, for Karen’s real objection to the referendum went far beyond dollars per mile.
… Rail was a threat to the lifestyle of New Tampa, where the line was supposed to end. In New Tampa you drove to the supermarket once a week (instead of walking or taking the bus every day like in the city), then loaded up the minivan at Home Depot on the weekends. Karen gave speeches decrying the influence of urban planners and warning against Agenda 21, a nonbinding United Nations “sustainable development” resolution from 1992 that many … regarded as a Trojan Horse for world government, a danger to American sovereignty, and an ominous threat to its single-family homes, paved roads, and golf courses.
Jaroch’s activism worked. Or, at least, she got what she wanted:
On November 2, light rail went down in Hillsborough County by 58 to 42 percent. Karen Jaroch and the Tea Party had outhustled the downtown businessmen and politicians, as voters in the unincorporated boomburgs and ghost subdivisions didn’t see a benefit in rail or want to pay another penny of taxes in the depths of the recession. Rick Scott, a Tea Party hero, who had refused to meet with any newspaper editorial boards and received none of their endorsements, was elected governor … Soon after taking office, Scott decided to reject $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money for a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa and Orlando, on which work was set to begin within weeks (the money went to California).
So a single person, righteous and committed, stopped a project that would have benefitted an entire region. That is the Unwinding. Nine years later, it continues. The 2022 version looks like this: Last September, Vail Resorts announced what was likely the largest set of single-season lift upgrades in the history of the world: $315-plus million on 19 lifts (later increased to 21 lifts) across 14 ski areas. Two of those lifts would land in Park City: a D-line eight-pack would replace the Silverlode six, and a six-pack would replace the Eagle and Eaglet triples. Two more lifts in a town with 62 of them (Park City sits right next door to Deer Valley). Surely this would be another routine project for the world’s largest ski area operator.
It wasn’t. In June, four local residents – Clive Bush, Angela Moschetta, Deborah Rentfrow, and Mark Stemler – successfully appealed the Park City Planning Commission’s previous approval of the lift projects.
“The upgrades were appealed on the basis that the proposed eight-place and six-place chairs were not consistent with the 1998 development agreement that governs the resort,” SAM wrote at the time. “The planning commission also cited the need for a more thorough review of the resort’s comfortable carrying capacity calculations and parking mitigation plan, finding PCM’s proposed paid parking plan at the Mountain Village insufficient.”
So instead of rising on the mountain, the lifts spent the summer, in pieces, in the parking lot. Vail admitted defeat, at least temporarily. “We are considering our options and next steps based on today's disappointing decision—but one thing is clear—we will not be able to move forward with these two lift upgrades for the 22-23 winter season,” Park City Mountain Resort Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Deirdra Walsh said in response to the decision.
One of the options Vail apparently considered was trucking the lifts to friendlier locales. Last Wednesday, as part of its year-end earnings release, Vail announced that the two lifts would be moved to Whistler and installed in time for the 2023-24 ski season. The eight-pack will replace the 1,129-vertical-foot Fitzsimmons high-speed quad on Whistler, giving the mountain 18 seats (!) out of the village (the lift runs alongside the 10-passenger Whistler Village Gondola). The six-pack will replace the Jersey Cream high-speed quad on Blackcomb, a midmountain lift with a 1,230-foot vertical rise. These will join the new Big Red six-pack and 10-passenger Creekside Gondola going in this summer on the Whistler side, giving the largest ski area on the continent four new lifts in two years. Looking at a map of Whistler is a little like staring into the human soul, but here’s the trailmap for context:
“We are excited to continue investing in the guest experience here at Whistler Blackcomb, and the opportunity to upgrade the Fitzsimmons Express and Jersey Cream chairlifts reinforces our commitment to excellence, especially as a world-class destination resort,” said Whistler Blackcomb Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Geoff Buchheister. “Following approvals and installation, these upgrades will reduce lift line wait times and create easier access and flow for all who visit our beautiful mountains, no matter the season.”
Meanwhile, Park City skiers will have to continue riding Silverlode, a sixer dating to 1996, and Eagle, a 1993 Garaventa CTEC triple (the Eaglet lift, unfortunately, is already gone). The vintage of the remaining lifts don’t sound particularly creaky, but both were built for a different, pre-Epic Pass Park City, and one that wasn’t connected via the Quicksilver Gondola to the Canyons side of the resort. Vail targeted these choke points to improve the mountain’s flow. But skiers are stuck with them indefinitely.
On paper, Vail remains “committed to resolving our permit to upgrade the Eagle and Silverlode lifts in Park City.” I don’t doubt that. But I wonder if the four individuals who chose to choke up this whole process understand the scale of what they just destroyed. Those two lifts, combined, probably cost somewhere around $50 million. Minimum. Maybe the resort will try again. Maybe it won’t. Surely Vail can find a lot of places to spend its money with far less friction.
The Unwinding continues. It echoes in Park City, where four people stopped development of two lifts that would have benefited the entire town. It echoes in Little Cottonwood Canyon, where locals fiercely oppose a gondola that could clean up impenetrable access road traffic to Alta and Snowbird. It echoes in the Vail Valley, where a town desperately in need of housing is willing to spend $12 million to prevent Vail Mountain from building exactly that. That elected officials are destroying the project in Colorado and private citizens are doing so in Utah doesn’t matter much. The result is the same. A few people oppose a big thing that would benefit a far larger group. Nothing gets done. Everyone leaves angry. The lifts go to Canada. Good job, Team. You got what you wanted. I hope you’re happy. I’m sure your fellow Park City residents will be very pleased to hear that they will indeed be able to ride the new lifts they were promised in 2023 – all they have to do is get on a plane to British Columbia.
Below the subscriber jump: your Epic Pass will soon be loaded onto your phone; New York and Wisconsin ski areas have a new owner; Ski to print final issue; Nub’s Nob gets a new chairlift; and much more.