Opinion: Five reasons Utah should reject a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon
It’s a high-risk solution that would end up complicating and lengthening the skier commute — worsening the problem it is designed to solve
Weekend skiers at Snowbird and Alta are no strangers to traffic. Early morning departures are followed by a slow procession up the canyon, and at the end of the day skiers join “the red snake,” the long line of cars with their brake lights on, winding down the canyon.
The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is currently evaluating two solutions for managing the rush-hour ski traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon — widening the road or building a gondola from the base of the canyon directly to Snowbird and Alta.
While both solutions are flawed, the gondola project — building the world’s longest gondola in a narrow canyon — would be a particularly egregious mistake. It’s a high-risk solution that not only would cost an exorbitant amount of taxpayer money and flood the adjacent canyons with new traffic problems, but would actually end up complicating and lengthening the skier commute — worsening the problem it is designed to solve.
Here are five of the many reasons why we shouldn’t consider building it:
A broad and flawed solution to a narrow problem
There are 10-15 days in the winter when skiers heading to Snowbird and Alta are stuck in rush-hour ski traffic. On those days, Snowbird and Alta estimate that they have 14,000 skiers and employees at their resorts, the vast majority of whom currently attempt to drive up the canyon between 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Any new transportation solution needs to be designed to solve that particular problem.
UDOT has stated that a gondola could move 1,050 people/hour through a loading station — assuming no mechanical or operational difficulties — which wouldn’t do much to help with the morning or afternoon transportation surges.
With only 1,500 parking places at the gondola base, plans currently call for skiers to park at satellite parking lots and take buses to the base before waiting in line to get on the gondola — all before beginning the 35-minute trip up the canyon. For almost all skiers, it would be faster, cheaper and more convenient to drive a car or take a bus up the canyon.
In addition to not solving the problem on the surge ski days, the gondola would have very little use during the other 350 days of the year, since there isn’t a traffic problem on those days. For Utah taxpayers to subsidize each gondola ride, not only during the winter ski rush hours, but throughout the entire year, would be a glaring misuse of taxpayer dollars.
The need for an incremental and flexible transportation solution
Drivers currently drive up the canyon to Snowbird and Alta during ski rush hour with an average of two passengers per vehicle. Implementing an automated variable toll in the upper canyon for cars with fewer than four passengers would cut traffic in half with minimal cost, and that cost would be borne by those who visit the canyon, rather than by all Utahns.
Such a toll, along with the paid and reserved parking solutions that Snowbird and Alta have implemented this year, would be a more practical and flexible, and much less expensive solution to the winter traffic problem. Using the gondola as a traffic mitigation tool is an expensive and inefficient approach.
We need a comprehensive transportation strategy for the canyons
Looking narrowly at Little Cottonwood Canyon without addressing Big Cottonwood Canyon and the Wasatch Back is shortsighted. The big picture should drive the small picture, not vice versa. Since the traffic flows of Snowbird, Alta, Brighton, Solitude, Park City and Deer Valley all impact one another, any strategic transportation plan should be examined from a regional rather than a local perspective.
Current efforts focusing solely on ski rush hour for Snowbird and Alta is like the tail wagging the dog. According to the Forest Service, Big and Little Cottonwood canyons had approximately 5.5 million visitors last year — more than Zion National Park and nearly as many as Yellowstone, with a fraction of the area. This number is likely to increase, and is a strong indicator that we need a general rather than narrow canyon plan.
A poor use of taxpayer money
Only 2%-3% of Utah citizens ski at Snowbird and Alta on the weekends. At an initial price tag of $600 million, the gondola project would result in a major transfer of tax money from public coffers into the pockets of real estate developers and resort owners who would be the primary beneficiaries of these tax dollars. There are many other infrastructure priorities — including more critical transportation-related projects, sewer and water projects, and needed seismic upgrades for public schools — that would benefit many more Utahns and have a wider and more powerful impact than one that serves a small minority.
Any Utah mayor could think of higher priority projects and more worthy places to invest.
Environmental and visual blight of an iconic place
The gondola system with its 22 unsightly towers (some as high as 20 stories) and connecting cables, visible from almost every location in the canyon would forever mar one of Utah’s most majestic landscapes, affecting not only skiers, but hikers, climbers, campers, and families visiting for the day.
Because Little Cottonwood Canyon is such a narrow canyon, there would be no way for visitors to escape the constant noise and visual distraction a gondola would create. The historical significance and natural beauty of Little Cottonwood Canyon make it a place worth protecting and preserving. It was sculpted by glaciers over many thousands of years, and its spectacular beauty makes it one of the most iconic natural creations in our valley. It has been photographed, painted and admired by visitors for centuries.
To summarize, the proposed gondola would be an ineffective and impractical solution to the canyon’s winter weekend traffic problem. In addition, it would tarnish the beauty of Little Cottonwood Canyon for all seasons — at tremendous cost — without adequately solving the problem.
As good fiscal and environmental stewards, we can and should do better.
Stan Christensen has been teaching negotiation and sustainable development at the Stanford School of Engineering for 20 years and also teaches at the BYU Marriott School of Business, and he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.