It’s cheaper than a train, more expensive than a bus. Is it the solution to canyon gridlock?

Cox ‘leaning’ toward gondola to relieve Wasatch traffic, but detractors worry of ‘amusement park’ in the mountains

It’s far too early to say with certainty a gondola is the answer officials will pick to tackle the aggravating gridlock heading to ski areas in the Wasatch canyons on powder days, but it is an option that’s captured the attention of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.

“I’m very interested in the gondola proposal,” Cox said. “I will tell you, that’s where I’ve been leaning just with everything that I’ve read.”

Picture looking out a window from a cable car suspended high above Little Cottonwood Canyon, framed by the Wasatch Mountains. It glides along over 8 miles of cable, all the way toward the top of the canyon, with a stop first at Snowbird ski resort, then at Alta. The ride is about 30 to 40 minutes, depending on your destination.

It’s a snow day — with canyon roads closed for avalanche control. While drivers wait for the canyon road to reopen, you’re sitting and waiting with more than a dozen others clad in snow gear, skis in hand, ready to step out to the ski resort. Then the slopes.

It’s a gondola system so large, it’s the first of its kind in Utah. Think Snowbird’s Ariel Tram — but cables five times as long and with 30 seated gondolas. Think way bigger — like the gondolas in Switzerland or Austria.

A Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola is only a concept at this point. It’s competing with at least two other options to tackle a problem that’s troubled Utah’s Wasatch mountains for more than 30 years — but made much worse by the sheer amount of people that head to those mountains for the “greatest snow on earth.”

It’s up against a train — or a cog railway — or enhanced bus service with avalanche sheds. All three solutions have their supporters and their detractors, whether it’s because of environmental impact, cost, or debate around whether they’d actually help the traffic problems or just enable more and more people to crowd up through the canyon and onto the mountains.

Even though Cox said he’s “leaning” toward a gondola, that doesn’t mean the decision’s been made. He was quick to add that the public process needs to play out first — including the work of the Central Wasatch Commission and a separate study underway by the Utah Department of Transportation — before picking a solution.

Buses begin lining up to bring skiers down the mountain near Alta in Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Ultimately,” he said, “this is a decision that we’ll be making in conjunction with the Legislature because it’s a really big one.”

The governor’s comments came during a conversation with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards — a sweeping exploration of the new governor’s first proposed budget, a $21.7 billion package from better-than-expected 2020 revenues during a pandemic and economic upheaval unveiled Monday.

Cox earmarked $50 million for dealing with transportation issues in the canyons on the east side of Salt Lake County. When asked for specifics on how that money will be used after years and years of talk and no significant actions to tackle traffic congestion in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, Cox said he wants to prioritize that money so when a decision is reached it will be ready to be spent.

“My hope is by doing this now we don’t have to wait a year once we make that decision over the next couple of months,” Cox said. “We should set this aside now so we can start on this very quickly.”

Buses, gondola or train?

So far, the work to improve the path to Snowbird and Alta’s world-class skiing in Little Cottonwood Canyon and overall access to the Wasatch mountains is focused on the following alternatives, many with big price tags.

  • Enhanced bus service with no road widening (with 24 buses at six buses per hour to each resort) would cost $334 million to put into place and $10.3 million in annual winter operation costs, according to according to UDOT’s environmental impact study. Widening the road as well would bring the upfront costs to $481 million.
  • A 30-gondola base station at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon with bus service from two hubs would cost an estimated $576 million plus about $8.3 million to operate, UDOT estimated. A gondola with a base station built east of the La Caille restaurant at 9565 S. Wasatch Blvd, which would also have 30 cars, would cost an estimated $576 million to build and $6.9 million to operate.
  • A cog rail with four train cars — with a station also based near the La Caille restaurant — would cost an estimated $1.05 billion and $6.3 million to operate, according to UDOT estimates.

Explaining his early preference toward a gondola, Cox said it would be “cheaper than the train solution, but more expensive than the bus solution.”

He also said it would be more “weather immune.” Snowstorms as well as avalanches and avalanche control add to traffic jams in the canyons, pushing traffic into neighborhoods as skiers line up in their cars and wait for the roads to open.

“The way the gondola works, we wouldn’t have to worry about that,” Cox said. “That’s a really big deal.”

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He thinks a gondola could also enhance canyon recreation in the summer months as it could become a “tourist attraction in and of itself.”

“Just the ability to move people at such a high rate of speed and get people up and down very quickly — it’s much more efficient than the bus system would be,” Cox said. “And it also has the support of the partners and the ski resorts. There’s a willingness there for them to participate on the private side to reduce the cost to taxpayers, so there’s an opportunity to bring those costs down as they pay for some of that as well.”

“So that’s why I’m leaning that direction,” Cox added. “But I still have to review all of the materials and see the final cost before we make a determination.”

Traffic moves up and down Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The case for and against a gondola

News of Cox’s interest perked the ears of gondola proponents, including Alta Ski Area’s general manager, Michael Maughan.

“It’s exciting, it’s getting attention — more attention it’s gotten in a long time,” Maughan said. “I agree with the governor’s assessment that there are some advantages that seem to be rising to the top for the gondola option.”

Maughan said “everyone is entitled to an opinion” about what to do about canyon traffic, but to him the “root cause of congestion in the canyons all revolves around weather.”

“The main culprit for congestion in the canyon is weather,” he said. “It’s the slick roads. At Alta, we can fill our parking lot to capacity and have 6,000 or 7,000 skiing here, and it’s a nice sunny day, and the traffic will fly out of the canyon in a reasonable amount of time. I can have half as many people and it’s snowing 2 inches an hour, the road is slick, and it will take 2 hours to get down the canyon because we have cars sliding off and running into one another.”

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Maughan also said a gondola would have far less of an environmental impact on the canyons than the cog rail or widening the roads. And simply enhancing bus service wouldn’t relieve traffic on powder days, he said.

Dave Fields, president and general manager of Snowbird, said the gondola is the “solution that truly checks all of the boxes.”

“It’s the safest and most economical and efficient way to move people in the mountains,” Fields said. “I’ve spent my whole life coming up and down this canyon, and really the problem has not changed in decades. ... The problem is not being helped by having more vehicles on the road. We need to look at different ideas that work in all weather conditions and take cars off the highways.”

A 3S gondola is pictured in Ischgl, Austria.
A 3S gondola is pictured in Ischgl, Austria. A similar gondola has been proposed to service skiers in Little Cottonwood Canyon, with a base station at either the park-and-ride at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon or a base station east of the La Caille restaurant at 9565 S. Wasatch Blvd., in Sandy It’s one of five proposals included as viable options for transportation solutions in Little Cottonwood Canyon, according to a Utah Department of Transportation environmental impact study. | Dave Fields, Snowbird

Asked whether a gondola would only bring more people up the canyons if it wasn’t paired with some sort of disincentive to get people off the road, Fields said he’s been supportive of a toll on the canyon road.

“We think tolling may end up being an important part of the equation,” he said.

The La Caille gondola has especially garnered support of ski industry stakeholders, including Snowbird, Alta, Ski Utah and other organizations. They’ve created a website called Gondolaworks.com, which lobbies for the La Caille base station gondola as a more environmentally friendly alternative to a train and one that would not be impacted by canyon closures for avalanche control.

The La Caille gondola, which was proposed by a private developer, according to UDOT’s study, would include a 1,500-stall underground parking structure. To allow for more parking for a gondola that is estimated to need at least 2,500 parking spots, the proposal also includes 600 parking spaces at the nearby Geneva gravel pit and 400 spaces at the park-and-ride near 9400 South and Highland Drive with bus service to the gondola station.

The travel time from La Caille to Snowbird would be about 27 minutes, UDOT’s study stated. For gondola riders headed to Alta, that would add about 9 minutes to transfer to a separate gondola system for the last segment. Those times increase if riders use bus service to get to the La Caille base station, to about 50 minutes to Snowbird and about 59 minutes to Alta, according to UDOT.

A rendering shows a gondola base station proposed to be built east of the La Caille restaurant at 9565 S. Wasatch Blvd., in Sandy It’s one of five proposals included as viable options for transportation solutions in Little Cottonwood Canyon, according to a Utah Department of Transportation environmental impact study. | Dave Fields, Snowbird

The gondola option also has its detractors.

Brad Rutledge, co-founder of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, said he was “glad to hear the governor understands that transportation issues in the canyons are a priority,” but his organization has concerns about a gondola.

A gondola, Rutledge said, would cater to skiers headed to ski resorts and not to other canyon users like snowshoers or hikers headed to trailheads in both summer and winter months.

“We think there are options that exist that could have less environmental impact that could be implemented more quickly and more easily than a gondola,” he said, such as electric buses along with avalanche sheds on the road, paired with other “disincentives” for personal vehicle use like a toll.

While buses are “not as sexy and attractive” as perhaps a gondola or a train, “we’re not trying to turn our wilderness, our mountains into an amusement park.”

Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, has said a gondola and a cog rail will only add to the crowds in the canyon to the detriment of the environment and the watershed.

“It is about getting people to two businesses in the canyons, the ski resorts,” Fisher told the Deseret News in November. “This is less about transportation and more about being a tourist and economic driver. The state is not doing this to solve an environmental or transportation problem. They are doing this to get a return on their investment by increasing visitation and earning more dollars to try to pump more visitors into ski areas.”

‘It’s early’

Josh Van Jura, project manager over the Little Cottonwood Canyon study, said UDOT is continuing to conduct a detailed analysis of the social, economic and environmental impacts of each option. The agency is slated to reach a recommendation this summer, followed by a 45-day public comment period. After one more evaluation, UDOT will conduct a final environmental impact study and it will go to the Legislature to determine funding.

In a separate, broader process than UDOT’s study, the Central Wasatch Commission is aiming to reach consensus among stakeholders on a recommendation for canyon transportation solutions by the beginning of April, the commission’s executive director and former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker told the Deseret News this week.

Becker said he was unaware of Cox’s interest in the gondola.

“We’ll see where the Central Wasatch Commission ends up, but we’re not there yet,” Becker said, adding there has been “a lot of progress and understanding” among stakeholders on the issue.

But it’s no easy task to find consensus among all the groups, including elected officials from Sandy to Park City, ski resorts, canyon landowners, conservation organizations and environmentalists.

Central Wasatch Commission Chairman Chris Robinson, also a Summit County councilman, said the commission has scheduled the first 90 days out of 2021 to “do a deep dive” into the transportation options and try to come up with consensus. So far, he said, none of those options have been ruled out or favored over the other.

“We’re grateful that the governor is engaged on this topic, and there is a significant amount of money in his budget to deal with transportation in the canyons,” Robinson said. “As far as what it should look like? It’s early.”

Robinson said the $50 million included in Cox’s budget proposal is a good sign that state leaders are committed to the issue, but it would only be enough to serve as a down payment as costs are likely going to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Obviously it’s going to take a lot more money than this,” Robinson said. “But in the fiscal year for which this money is being proposed, that’s a nice sum.”