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Opinion: A gondola is the wrong choice for Little Cottonwood Canyon

Vehicles will be gridlocked trying to get into the parking garage backing up onto Wasatch Boulevard. Lines will form at the station during the morning rider surge

A banner opposing a gondola hangs near the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
A banner hangs in opposition to the proposed Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola near the base of the canyon in Cottonwood Heights on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

During the last month, the Deseret News published a piece by columnist Lee Benson and a letter from a Murray resident, both in support of building a gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Let’s clear the air.

Benson states that the problem, “increased traffic flow,” is best solved with a gondola. This congestion problem can be better solved with simple, commonsense solutions, such as variable tolling, paid parking vehicle traction/4WD compliance, additional mobility hubs located near riders’ origins, restrictions on private cars on high-use days and avalanche sheds, all should be tried before road widening and certainly before a gondola.

The Utah Department of Transportation presented a false equivalence in two proposals. The gondola is an “all-in” choice. It is not scalable. The day-one cost is $600 million for a system offering no congestion-elimination guarantee that takes one hour longer than the bus. Enhanced busing can be scaled up or down depending on need. Components of the bus strategy can be phased in, experimented with and modified to see which brings the greatest result for the lowest cost and the least negative canyon impact, benefitting all canyon users.

Benson wrongly states that the gondola and the bus would cost the same: $500 million. According to UDOT the cost is $510 million for the bus and $592 million for the gondola.

I agree with his portrayal of Little Cottonwood Canyon being one of the more picturesque canyons anywhere. He even places it above Zion and tied with Delicate Arch. But he wants to desecrate Little Cottonwood Canyon, a designated National Scenic Byway, with 22 monstrous towers. So maybe he would be OK with a tram up Angels Landing or a Delicate Arch gondola. Let’s hope not.

Benson says a gondola tower is no different than a ski lift tower. The proposed 22 gondola towers range from 131 feet to 262 feet, averaging 183 feet. Standard single-column chairlifts average 50 feet tall and blend into the tree line. Gondola towers are massive, matrixed structures with 30-foot-by-40-foot concrete bases and cabins 100 feet above the tree line, blending into nothing. Ski lifts usually run perpendicular to the roadway, located within ski resort boundaries. The gondola runs parallel to the highway and would be in view anywhere up and down the canyon.

His gondola argument includes an assumption that selecting the bus option is surrendering to global warming and air pollution. He ignores the fact that nonpolluting electric bus technology exists. A local company, Proterra, manufactures 100% battery-electric transit buses and has demonstrated their capability to travel to Utah’s ski resorts. The technology is here.

Benson compares Little Cottonwood Canyon to Zermatt at the base of the Matterhorn without any acknowledgment of significant differences: the Alps versus the Wasatch Front, Zermatt versus Alta. Zermatt is accessed only by train, gondolas are used as ski lifts. Zermatt has 40 four-star hotels and, according to its mayor, on Dec. 26 each year it leaps from a population of 5,900 to 40,000 people in just two days. Apples and oranges.

Putting a gondola station at LaCaille does not solve congestion. It just moves it downhill to the canyon mouth and two parking hubs where passengers will schlep their ski gear to a bus for the final loading station trek.

There are no peer-reviewed engineering studies demonstrating the efficacy of traffic and passenger flow for this full process. Vehicles will be gridlocked trying to get into the parking garage backing up onto Wasatch Boulevard. Lines will form at the station during the morning rider surge for first tracks.

The recent letter writer made reference to the Palm Springs gondola as being a memorable tourist attraction. That tram was built without one cent of public funds. Here, gondola supporters want taxpayers to spend $592 million for a system that directly profits two private companies, benefits less than 7% of Utahns to solve a problem that happens a handful of days each year. The median household income in Utah is $70,000. The median downhill skier income is $100,000. This inequitable use of tax dollars is Robin Hood financing in reverse.

The gondola is the wrong choice for Little Cottonwood Canyon and an unfair deal for Utah taxpayers.

Michael Marker is a retired management consultant who specialized in business process improvement, work system redesign and was an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. He has worked and volunteered in a customer service capacity at both Alta and Snowbird. A resident of Sandy, he is a director in Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon.