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Gondola? Buses? New poll asks locals what they think will solve ski traffic woes in one of Utah’s most crowded canyons

Utah Department of Transportation will recommend one of 2 options, both of which will cost over $500 million

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

A gondola has certainly caught attention as a possible new way to lift skiers up to some of Utah’s most popular ski resorts — but most locals favor another solution.

Instead, most Utahns want an enhanced bus system to transport skiers, snowboarders and others looking to recreate up Little Cottonwood Canyon, which on powder days has been plagued with traffic that often spills over into the neighborhoods of Sandy and Cottonwood Heights.

That’s according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, for which 60% of respondents picked an enhanced bus system as their first choice, while 20% said they prefer the gondola.

About 10% said nothing should happen, while 9% chose “some other option.”

Of the 60% that favor the enhanced bus system, 37% say they want to see the road widened. About 23% said they want to see an enhanced bus system without widening the road.

The Utah Department of Transportation is currently weighing the feasibility of two options: an 8-mile gondola that would take the public to Snowbird or Alta, or an enhanced bus system with a widened road.

The gondola is estimated to cost $592 million and the bus system $510 million.

Dan Jones & Associates conducted the poll of a 739 registered Utah voters from Nov. 18-30. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

Respondents were asked to rank five choices in order of preference: expanded bus service with a widened road, expanded bus service without the widened road, the gondola, nothing or some other option.

‘Opposition to the gondola is growing’

The recently elected mayor of one of the Utah cities located near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon wasn’t surprised by the poll’s results. Sandy Mayor-elect Monica Zoltanski told the Deseret News that her electoral victory was evidence of how residents across the Wasatch Front feel about the gondola.

Her opposition to the gondola was a key issue in her campaign. Jim Bennett, who lost to Zoltanski by razor-thin margin, also spoke out against the gondola.

“The opposition to the gondola is growing,” Zoltanski said. “And there’s much more support for commonsense measures that will meet the goal of reducing traffic on the canyon road. There’s a lot more we can do. There’s a lot more the resorts can do. There’s a lot more the resort customers could do.”

Support for what Zoltanski sees as more “commonsense” solutions is evident in the 23% of respondents who said they want to see an enhanced bus system without widening the road, and the 32% who picked it as their second choice. It’s an approach that has been floated by several local leaders, including Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Zoltanski.

“UDOT needs to broaden its scope and say, ‘How can we create amenities and conveniences for Little Cottonwood Canyon.’ ... For me, I don’t think we need to expand the road. I think that would be a mistake,” Zoltanski told the Deseret News.

Wilson recently spelled out her four-step approach to Little Cottonwood Canyon in a recent meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards:

  • Build more mobility hubs, dispersed around the city and not centralized on a particular municipality.
  • Invest in an enhanced public transit system that includes more vehicles, upgraded buses and possibly an electrified fleet.
  • Invest in travel demand management — things like tolling, incentivizing carpooling, “making better use of the road we have.”
  • Technology that gives people real-time updates on road and traffic conditions, how crowded the resorts are — “what is going on in the canyon,” as Wilson put it.

Zoltanski said the price tag for both options is at the root of her opposition, a sentiment backed by Craig Osterloh, a founding member of Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon, a nonprofit that recently sprang up in opposition to the gondola.

“Our state has huge funding needs. There’s public and higher education, state and national parks, road improvements, rural infrastructure — those all need money, and we’re going to spend $600 million on a gondola that benefits two private ski resorts? That is a waste of taxpayer money and we should fund numerous, far more worthy projects,” said Osterloh.

A sign opposed to a gondola is pictured near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
A sign opposed to a gondola is pictured near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

‘Nobody’s going to ride the bus’

Former Sandy City Councilman Chris McCandless says the issue is complex, and that a single poll question can’t paint a clear picture of public opinion.

“It’s just not that simple. And there’s so much more involved in this entire process. That’s why it’s taken us 30 years to come to, hopefully, a conclusion,” said McCandless, who founded CW Management along with former state Senate President Wayne Niederhauser.

The company is part of the Gondola Works coalition and owns the lot near the La Caille restaurant at the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon that is the proposed base station for the gondola.

McCandless thinks misinformation may have swayed public opinion, whether it’s inflated estimates of how much the gondola will cost or claims that he will get rich off the development, which he denies.

Of the over 200 presentations McCandless has given about the gondola, “people will come in favoring the bus, and most will change to the gondola by the end of the presentation because then they become more informed,” he said.

While the bus system may seem appealing, McCandless said ridership is already low, and the state risks spending a half-billion dollars on a transit system no one will use.

“How many people will actually ride the bus? That question has to be asked and answered, because if nobody’s going to ride the bus ... which I suspect may be the case, then we didn’t solve anything,” he said.

Whatever the option, it’s clear that Utahns do not support sitting idle. Only 10% said the state should do nothing, while 44% picked that as their last option.

With the public comment period over, the Utah Department of Transportation is sifting through a record-breaking 13,000 submissions before it issues a recommendation — most likely in late winter, early spring — to the Utah Legislature.

If UDOT sticks to its timeline, the Legislature will vote to fund a recommendation during the 2023 session. However, lawmakers can vote against funding the recommendation, which could effectively send UDOT back to the drawing board.