I first heard about the proposed gondola project for Little Cottonwood Canyon on a recent ride up the Peruvian chairlift at Snowbird. I’m not a Utah native or current resident, but I was immediately interested, as Little Cottonwood Canyon is a place I have loved visiting for more than 40 years.  

I’ve been skiing in Utah since the late ’70s, with many memorable family trips to Snowbird, and then taking advantage of cheap student rate season passes as a local college student. Since settling in Southern California, I still ski in Utah about 10 to 20 days a year. For me, its powdery snow, majestic mountains and easy access make for the best skiing on earth!

Skiing in Utah over the years, I’m very familiar with the “red snake” and weekend traffic issues up Cottonwood, as well as occasional canyon closures caused by storms and avalanches. While my first thought, when a big winter storm hits, is how great the skiing is going to be, I understand the frustration traffic and closures can cause. 

In trying to fairly understand the controversy over the gondola system, I have talked with people on both sides and read quite a few of the reports and studies. Those in favor of the gondola see it as an efficient, long-term solution that preserves the canyon to a greater extent than would additional buses and/or widening the road.

Those opposed to the gondola focus on the high cost of the system (including to taxpayers), the need for a comprehensive solution that includes plans for the other canyons in the area, the likelihood that use of the gondola would be seasonal and sparse, and the overall environmental impact.

Based on what I have learned to date, I am not yet persuaded that the gondola project is justified when compared with other potential solutions, such as adding carbon friendly buses to the fleet or a seasonal rush hour toll system. 

Transporting a thousand or so people an hour, the gondola would transport less people up the canyon during rush hour than buses and cars. The proposal envisions a 1,500-car parking garage with additional parking at “mobility hubs,” requiring further bus transport to the base station. Gondola riders would still have to drive or “park and ride” to the base station, which isn’t supported by the existing transportation infrastructure. 

The result may well be that traffic congestion is just moved half a mile to the west. I’m also not convinced that the majority of skiers would be willing to travel to a parking hub, “park and ride” to the gondola base, and then wait in line before taking a 35-minute gondola trip up the canyon.

The Utah Department of Transportation literature does not take into account the reality that the next generation of buses will be electric and/or fuel cell powered (and within several years very possibly self-driving) and therefore produce lower carbon emissions, have longer life cycles and have lower lifetime capital costs than traditional buses. The gondola, as currently planned, would be running all 40 carrier cars at once, including those not in use. The entire gondola would presumably run more or less continuously throughout the year, oftentimes with low passenger loads, whereas a next generation fuel cell or e-bus system could fluctuate with demand and time of year. 

The cost and environmental impact studies for a tech-enabled carbon friendly bus system need to be analyzed and updated. Based on current figures, a more complete analysis will most likely show that the capital costs, ongoing expenses and overall environmental impact is significantly less than those associated with the gondola option, which is estimated to cost nearly $600 million in initial capital costs alone. 

A phased approach would allow time to study a more comprehensive solution for the canyons and avoid rushing into costly and potentially irreversible actions. One possibility is initial experimentation with a toll system, which in relative terms would not be overly complicated or costly to implement. Tolls could fluctuate, based on time of day, the season and the number of passengers, as is done in many ski areas around the world.

UDOT should take time to broaden the study parameters, evaluate carbon friendly bus systems and consider the effectiveness of a phased approach. The arguments in favor of a gondola system are not convincing so far, and getting this decision wrong could have permanent and negative fiscal, operational and environmental impacts. I urge UDOT and the Legislature to avoid a rushed decision and to comprehensively and creatively study all the alternatives.

Martin Nichols is a transactional attorney focusing on mergers and acquisitions work and technology startups. He also guest-lectures at Stanford, UC Berkeley law school and the BYU Marriott School of Business.