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Opinion: Don’t put gondolas up Little Cottonwood Canyon

A phased approach using better buses, tolling, carpool incentives, tire traction requirements and other technologies would be cheaper and more versatile

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Gondola Works released an animated video that depicts what a gondola system would look like in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The Utah Department of Transportation released an animated video on June 29, 2021, that depicts what a gondola system would look like in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Gondola Works

Picture this: As you travel toward the entrance to Little Cottonwood Canyon, you encounter 21 steel towers along the canyon road — roughly every half-mile, one after another — each the height of a high-rise hotel and connected to one another by massive cables. 

Added to that, picture cable cars buzzing along those unsightly wires. This scene starts near the base of the canyon and continues uninterrupted all the way to the town of Alta, hovering over treasured canyon locations, including historic sites, cherished trails and campgrounds, world-renowned climbing spots and lush fields of sublime wildflowers.

An image like that could permanently mar the majestic vistas of Little Cottonwood Canyon — and it could very much become a reality if the Utah Department of Transportation selects the gondola option as the preferred transportation alternative in its Little Cottonwood Canyon environmental impact statement.

But that outcome doesn’t need to be a foregone conclusion. A phased approach that implements nonpermanent and less costly measures should be put into place first, before taking steps that could irreversibly alter Little Cottonwood Canyon.

These measures include improved and regularly running buses, tolling, carpool incentives, tire traction requirements and investments in technology that provides real-time information to assist travelers in mode choices. 

I believe that, by investing in these methods, significant progress can be made without a $500 million-plus investment to build a gondola or expand the road, or the additional millions annually to run each.

Consumer-friendly busing is a better choice between the two alternatives under consideration. Why? Well, in addition to avoiding 21 view-busting towers, busing is more convenient because it entails a single mode transfer rather than multiple transfers (i.e., from a car to a bus to a gondola).

It’s also more flexible because it can “pivot” with changing circumstances, including shifting conditions (such as drought or reduced snowfall) that could render the projected increase in visitors incorrect. If those predictions don’t pan out, buses could be repurposed or the fleet size reduced, resulting in cost savings. The “fixed” nature of the gondola doesn’t offer that kind of flexibility. 

In addition, a significant number of travelers will continue to use the road with the gondola option — everyone from resort skiers willing to pay a toll, to backcountry skiers, hikers and others headed to locations in the canyon other than the two resorts. Let’s be clear. The gondola will not eliminate road traffic, regardless of what proponents claim.

And the enormous sticker price isn’t something to take lightly. Imagine all of the pressing societal needs that a $500 million-plus investment could tackle. Fiscal responsibility requires that we justify such a massive public investment with corresponding public benefits. That’s where a defense of the gondola breaks down given that its purpose is to serve a highly narrow population  visitors to two ski resorts.

In contrast, busing, with its use of the existing road, will benefit a larger population, given its ability to service year-round, dispersed recreation sites and serve a broader community by integrating into a regional transportation network. Quite simply, it’s the more practical option. 

We don’t need a shiny, mega-system to solve the traffic congestion problem that has plagued Little Cottonwood Canyon for years. A bus-centric system — with “new and improved buses,” i.e., smaller, more comfortable, more frequent, more environmentally friendly, Wi-Fi enabled buses — is a better fit.

That’s why, after two years studying these complex issues, I am recommending an investment in measures that are affordable and do not irreparably damage the precious natural resource known as Little Cottonwood Canyon, including its priceless watershed that provides drinking water to more than 450,000 people throughout our valley.

If, after years of investment in these measures, the canyon traffic problem is not significantly improved, I would favor the road expansion as proposed by UDOT.

Please reach out to UDOT and your government officials and ask them to first address commonsense solutions and reject the gondola proposal. It’s the better choice for the future of Little Cottonwood Canyon, our larger community, and our collective pocketbook.

Jenny Wilson is the mayor of Salt Lake County.