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Opinion: A gondola is the best way to preserve Little Cottonwood Canyon

Instead of adding more asphalt, cars and buses, this option would be good for the environment while helping ski resorts grow.

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An artist’s conception of a gondola 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

The recent proposals that UDOT has outlined as solutions for the ongoing transportation issues in Little Cottonwood Canyon seem to have the whole valley abuzz. 

Over the past decade, there have been a variety of solutions proposed, but one thing is clear: Something needs to be done to mitigate transportation issues in the canyon so we can all continue responsibly recreating in the mountains while still protecting our environment.

Recently, UDOT narrowed the proposed solutions down to two, after decades of studies: Widening the road and incorporating more buses, or building a 3S gondola with a parking station at La Caille.

There is no silver bullet that can solve this issue that has plagued the canyon for decades. However, as a veteran of the ski industry and current president of Ski Utah, a 501(c)6 devoted to promoting the ski industry in Utah, I can say the discourse surrounding this project seems to be about the wrong idea. Many of the comments I’ve seen, fueled by misinformation and confusion, are debating whether we do something or nothing. Doing nothing is no longer a viable option.

The question is simple: Would you rather ride a bus or a 3S gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon? The answer is also simple: A bus is something you have to ride whereas a gondola is something you get to ride. From a user experience standpoint, a gondola is the obvious option.

The proposed option would make it easy for guests to park in a large parking garage at La Caille and be swiftly transported up the canyon via gondola cabins that arrive every 15 seconds. It will take approximately 31 minutes to arrive at Snowbird and 37 minutes to arrive at Alta — much faster than waiting in traffic up the canyon on a powder day.

Speaking as someone who grew up riding the bus every weekend from Foothill Drive to Solitude before I could drive, buses were a good solution back then, and UTA has continually done a great job working with all available resources. However, as a state, we have simply outgrown this option. While our calling card has always been “The Greatest Snow on Earth”, the other aspect Utah is known for is “The Greatest Access on Earth.” If that access goes away and we can no longer honestly say we have eight resorts within an hour of the airport, a good portion of our $1.7 billion ski industry, with 20,000-plus jobs and all the economic benefit Utah gleans from it, will disappear, too.

Access to backcountry terrain has also been a hotly debated topic throughout this discourse. We know that a significant portion of backcountry tours start from Alta and/or White Pine and would also be easily accessible via the 3S gondola.

The 3S gondola solution also is the clear choice from an environmental standpoint. The enhanced bus, with road widening, involves more asphalt, more concrete, more cars, more room for human error and more emissions. It also is still subject to closure due to avalanches or accidents.

The gondola, on the other hand, will reduce carbon emissions in the canyon by up to 56%. We cannot continue to rely solely on motor vehicles in Little Cottonwood Canyon and expect to preserve it for generations to come.

It is also important to clear up some misconceptions about the gondola itself. We’re not talking about your average gondola here. The proposed gondola is a 3S Doppelmayr Gondola straight out of the Jetsons: it will have seating for all passengers and accommodates 32-35 people. The 3S gondola is extremely speedy, operating at speeds up to 8.5 meters per second. Your average American gondola only goes about 5 meters per second. It will even have chargers for electronics. This gondola will simply be your first (comfortable, high tech) chair lift of the day.

The 3S gondola is a forward-thinking, long-term solution that helps preserve the canyon while removing cars from the road and emissions from the air. It also enables guests to enjoy its beauty in a new, safe and less invasive way. It provides an emergency access and exit route should a road closure occur.

Finally, the 3S gondola proposal doesn’t exist to simply benefit the ski resorts. That’s shallow thinking and an easy straw man. The ski resorts will continue to grow and thrive regardless of which solution is chosen. This decision is about the canyon and the visitor experience, not the ski resorts. The gondola option will preserve and protect Little Cottonwood Canyon. 

Nathan Rafferty is CEO of Ski Utah