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Opinion: Why spend more than $500M when this option exists?

UDOT may soon recommend an expensive and environmentally harmful gondola system to relieve skier traffic up Little Cottonwood Canyon. A better, cheaper and more effective way exists, and it doesn’t involve doing nothing.

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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

If the Utah Department of Transportation chooses a massive and intrusive gondola system as its recommended solution to traffic problems up Little Cottonwood Canyon, officials say the first step would be a yearslong phased approach that begins with enhanced busing, tolls, restrictions on single occupancy vehicles and public transportation mobility hubs.

This would be implemented while the state searches for gondola funding.

But, instead of a first phase, that sounds like a good test run for something that might make all other options unnecessary. Why not implement this and measure the results?

We encourage UDOT to do exactly that.

We oppose moving forward with a gondola because:

  1. We are convinced it could negatively impact a vital watershed at a time of repeated drought conditions.
  2. We are concerned about the lingering impacts of a drying Great Salt Lake and climate changes that could impact snowfall in the decades ahead.
  3. We are concerned about equity, dedicating hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver skiers and snowboarders to resorts atop the canyon, while other needs — affordable housing, food insecurity, helping a homeless population — continue to need significant investment.
  4. Finally, we aren’t convinced a Gondola, long term, will do what it’s intended to do: free the canyon from congestion as the Wasatch Front continues its population growth.

The Little Cottonwood Canyon Environmental Impact Statement states: “UDOT does not have funding to implement the proposed preferred alternative. The phased implementation plan will alleviate mobility, reliability and safety concerns that exist today, while addressing the long-term transportation need in the canyon.” We agree with all but that last clause.

Unfortunately, rejecting the gondola and any plan to widen the canyon road has been labeled the “do nothing” approach, or a decision to leave things as they are. That is not correct. 

A plan that keeps the current roadway intact but adds a variable toll, electric buses and a commitment to close canyon roads to all traffic once certain daily limits are met would not be doing nothing. It would be taking a smart approach that preserves an important canyon and minimizes environmental risks. Combined with new systems Snowbird and Alta have already implemented, requiring parking reservations on weekends and other high-traffic days, we believe it would have a dramatic effect on traffic congestion with a minimum of cost.

No one seems certain where the money would come from to fund either a gondola system or an expansion of the highway up the canyon — the two alternatives UDOT landed on in a draft environmental impact statement in 2021. The department has said it will announce its final recommendation this winter, possibly after the new year.

Both projects have been estimated to cost more than $500 million each. With inflation and overruns, it is not hard to imagine each greatly exceeding that figure. Even if the federal government chips in, this would be an enormous investment of public funds to largely benefit skiers at two resorts, while the state has many other pressing needs.

As the Central Wasatch Commission notes on its website, “Our close proximity to our watershed is unique. Many states in the Western United States have to pipe their water for miles before delivery, while here in the Salt Lake Valley, it only takes approximately 24 hours for the water to be processed before entering our faucets.”

The drought has applied stress to that watershed. Development and construction of a gondola and its support systems may unnecessarily exacerbate that

The arguments in favor of a gondola system are enticing. The eight-mile-long aerial tri-cable system would be the longest in the world. Proponents say it would be a tourist attraction year-round, providing riders with spectacular views. Unlike cars, it would not add to air pollution as it delivers thousands of people to ski resorts and back to base station, from which riders would be bused to a mammoth parking structure proposed for about a quarter mile northeast of La Caille restaurant.

But the impacts would be enormous. The gondola would require the construction of 22 towers measuring 200 feet high, built at intervals throughout the canyon. Not only would these permanently mar the landscape, they would each require access roads for maintenance vehicles. And as we’ve seen in other places, once those poles are in place, they will not be removed — even if a gondola system falls out of favor or economically no longer makes sense.

Construction of the gondola option has been estimated at $550 million. That doesn’t include annual maintenance costs, which have been estimated at $4 million each winter and $3 million each summer. Potential tourist value aside, the gondola system would relieve congested traffic up the canyon only a few days each year when skier demand is at its peak. 

An expanded roadway would be almost as expensive, and is likely to cause environmental disruptions.

No one should minimize the impact traffic jams have on neighborhoods near the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon during peak skiing days. But the gondola is likely to move this traffic jam only to Wasatch Boulevard, as people line up for spots at the parking facility. 

A solution using an enhanced electric bus system, variable tolls, reservations and limits on automobiles would reduce traffic while costing less, preserving the canyon and leaving UDOT with flexibility. If, after a few years, such a system proves ineffective, the state could begin to look at other alternatives.