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Opinion: The gondola wins at Little Cottonwood Canyon — or does it?

The Utah Department of Transportation has decided a three-phased approach, including an eight-mile gondola, is the answer to the canyon’s congestion problems. We think phase one could be the answer.

SHARE Opinion: The gondola wins at Little Cottonwood Canyon — or does it?
A sign opposed to a gondola is pictured in a yard near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

A sign opposed to a gondola is pictured in a yard near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Cottonwood Heights on Dec. 7, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Utah Department of Transportation has released its final record of decision about the future of transportation up Little Cottonwood Canyon. The gondola wins.

Or does it?

The decision, after years of study and passionate public comments, calls for a three-phased approach, in which construction of an 8-mile, mountainside-scarring gondola comes in the third phase, perhaps as many as 25 years from now.

Our hope is that the first phase, which consists of expanded bus service, mobility hubs, a tolling system and restricted parking, will be so successful that further phases aren’t necessary. 

The entire three-phase project would, according to various estimates, cost between $729 million and more than $1 billion, not including the costs of maintenance and operation. We would hope that ski resorts, not taxpayers, would pick up most of that tab. But, more to the point, we hope it never comes to that.

Traffic in the canyon has become an environmental danger and an irritant to skiers who come from the valley — but only during relatively few days each year. On those days, traffic slows to a crawl, adding to air pollution, and slippery conditions lead to slide offs and collisions. 

But installing a system that would bring more people into the canyon — which would happen with a gondola and with an expanded roadway up the canyon — would not protect the mountains from overuse. The answer lies in restricting access. A tollway and restricted parking would help accomplish this. The gondola would be an expensive gamble to an intermittent problem.

UDOT estimates the tolls would cost $20 to $30 per car. We recommend variable tolls instead, much like those on the HOV lanes along I-15. Charge less during off-peak times, and more during times of high demand. Then limit the total number of visitors per day. 

In the past, we have opposed construction of a gondola for four reasons. It could negatively impact a vital watershed, which could be especially problematic during times of drought. It could prove to be a boondoggle if climate changes reduce average snowfall in coming years. It would dedicate possibly more than $1 billion to help snowboarders and skiers at the expense of other, more urgent needs in the state. And it may not accomplish the goal of freeing the canyon from congestion as the population along the Wasatch Front continues to grow.

The eight-mile gondola — it would be the longest in the world — would extend from a base station along Wasatch Boulevard to Snowbird and Alta ski resorts atop the canyon. Cars would arrive every two minutes, with each capable of holding up to 35 people.

Proponents note that the gondola would not add to air pollution, and it could become a tourist attraction in its own right. But its environmental impacts would come in other ways.

The gondola would require 22 towers measuring 200 feet high each, built at intervals throughout the canyon. These would be permanent scars on the mountainside, and each would require access roads accommodating maintenance vehicles.

We fear that, even if the gondola falls out of favor or proves to be ineffective, the poles would not be removed. 

UDOT’s second phase in this project would be to widen Wasatch Boulevard, building snow sheds with sloped roofs and trailhead parking improvements. The third phase calls for construction of a 2,500-car parking lot at the bottom of the canyon, in addition to the gondola.

Phase one would cost $150 million, which must be approved by the Legislature. The next two phases would be much more expensive, with lawmakers no doubt engaging in long and unpredictable discussions over funding. Already, the executive director of the local conservation group Save Our Canyons has told the Deseret News his organization is considering a lawsuit to prevent the gondola, further complicating matters. 

We hope legal challenges don’t impede the state from pursuing phase one. Total inaction would be the worst outcome. But phase one’s toll road, busing (hopefully with electric buses) and parking restrictions ought to improve the Little Cottonwood Canyon situation to the point where the next two phases seem unnecessary.