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Opinion: Gondola? Bus? Bigger highway? Just make sure the answer isn’t ‘nothing at all’

UDOT will make a decision early next year on the future of transportation up Little Cottonwood Canyon. It’s important that the final choice doesn’t result in endless lawsuits.

The potential site for a gondola base station in Little Cottonwood Canyon is shown.
The potential site for the base station of a proposed gondola, in the bottom center of the image between North Little Cottonwood Road and a private drive, is pictured at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A gondola or an expanded roadway?

Those are among the five main alternatives proposed for the future of an increasingly crowded Little Cottonwood Canyon, and the choice could have an enormous impact on long-term environmental impacts to the Wasatch Front — both to the mountains themselves and to many people who live in the valley and use the water that comes from them.

But it won’t be the final word on protecting the canyon. That must remain an ongoing process based on facts and changing conditions.

The Utah Department of Transportation hopes to make a final decision on how people will access the canyon some time early in 2022, likely by the end of the year’s first quarter. UDOT project manager Josh Van Jura told us this week he’s carefully reading through more than 13,000 public comments on the matter. If more good and viable alternatives arise, the process could take longer, he said.

But it’s important to understand that, despite how important this decision is, it must not be the end of canyon traffic decisions. State and local leaders still will be responsible for pivoting and making important adjustments, based on new information, long after UDOT decides whether to widen the road for buses, or build an expensive gondola, or perhaps even send a train up the canyon.

Researchers at Utah State University are about one year away from completing a study of the canyon to determine how many visitors it can safely hold — often referred to, in bureaucratic language, as the canyon’s “carrying capacity.”

UDOT likely will make its decision before that study is complete, and Van Jura told us it wouldn’t have a bearing on that choice. Regardless of whether a wider road, a gondola or a train carries people up and down the canyon, a decision could be made later to limit the number of visitors.

That might mean temporarily closing access on high-volume days until enough people have exited.

Such a thing has a precedent. In some national parks now, visitors are required to obtain reservations in advance. Roads are closed to people who try to enter on a whim.

The Central Wasatch Commission, which represents nine cities, two counties and many other stakeholders impacted by long-term canyon decisions, would prefer the state hold off on a final decision until it can take a “broader, more holistic approach” to the traffic problem, to quote from its position paper.

The commissioners’ argument is that it’s short-sighted to view Little Cottonwood Canyon in a vacuum, without also considering how any transportation strategy there might affect Big Cottonwood Canyon and other areas.

They make a good point. Certainly, any such decision has ramifications beyond its immediate boundaries. However, Van Jura said UDOT is committed to making a decision, adding that, after years and years of study, there are no easy solutions. Had it been otherwise, studies would not have continued for so long.

The worst possible outcome would be any decision that results in a series of challenges and lawsuits. We urge all parties to avoid such a thing by seeking consensus based on facts.

No final choice would satisfy everyone, but prolonging a strategic solution would, in reality, be a choice of continuing longer with no solution at all. That would be untenable.