The Utah Department of Transportation’s final public comment period for the proposed gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon closed on Monday, 45 days after the department recommended the project in an effort to alleviate skier traffic.
And while UDOT is still sorting through the thousands of comments, a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll suggests mounting public support for the gondola across Utah.
Roughly 43% of respondents said they approve of UDOT’s decision, while 32% say they disapprove.
The poll also points to what appears to be some apathy when it comes to Utahns and Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Of those who said they approve, 30% said they “somewhat approve” — the largest block — while 24% said they don’t know, the second largest.
About 13% said they somewhat disapprove and 19% said they strongly disapprove.
Dan Jones & Associates conducted the poll from Oct. 3-6, surveying 801 registered Utah voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.
“There is a ton of emotion surrounding Little Cottonwood Canyon,” said Josh Van Jura, the project manager for UDOT tasked with reading the latest batch of public comments. “A lot of people have a very strong emotional reaction, and I think a lot of their preference, as shown here, is probably surrounded by how they use the canyon.”
As of Monday afternoon, UDOT received almost 10,000 public comments during the latest 45-day period. During the last 70-day period in 2021, the department fielded a record-breaking 14,000 public comments.
Van Jura couldn’t say whether the latest round of public comments aligns with the sentiments found in the poll results. He said the department doesn’t tally the comments as “yes” or “no” votes like a referendum, in part because the process is not a public vote, but rather an opportunity for UDOT to field suggestions or criticism for a project.
UDOT recommended the gondola in late August, following years of deliberation over how to solve the gridlock in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The department had essentially boiled it down to two decisions — an 8-mile gondola stemming from a base station near the upscale French restaurant La Caille, or an enhanced bus system with a widened road.
Both options were estimated to run over $500 million — and both were controversial, with a number of local leaders calling for a phased approach instead, where UDOT could run buses with increased frequency and toll private vehicles.
That included Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski, who made her opposition to the gondola a cornerstone of her 2020 campaign. On Monday, she told the Deseret News that Utahns along the Wasatch Front are likely more invested in the debate over Little Cottonwood Canyon than anywhere else in the state.
“They may have seen some headlines, but I don’t think people outside Salt Lake County are really focusing on it,” she said. “I can tell you, being adjacent to the canyon, this is a primary issue. In Sandy, it’s top of mind for our residents.”
Roughly 35% of the respondents were from Salt Lake County, the most of any county surveyed. Second was Utah County at 24%, followed by Davis at 12%.
Zoltanski said constituents are constantly approaching her to voice their opposition to the project — a sentiment backed by Sandy’s own survey, conducted in January.
In the Sandy survey, 64% preferred an enhanced bus service — 23% said with a widened road and 41% said without — while 23% said they wanted a gondola. Roughly 8% said “other” and 5% said do nothing. According to the city, 92% of respondents were Sandy residents.
“That showed people in Sandy are not interested in the gondola,” Zoltanski said.
The responses from the Sandy survey were similar to a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll conducted in November 2021, in which 60% of respondents picked an enhanced bus system as their first choice, while 20% said they prefer the gondola.
When compared to this most recent poll, there appears to be a shift in public perception toward the gondola. Chris McCandless, a former Sandy councilman and co-founder of the pro-gondola real estate company CW Management, credits UDOT for dispelling what he said is widespread misinformation around the proposal.
“They’ve done a great job in conveying accurate information, and they’ve made themselves very available to answer questions,” he said. “It’s encouraging that there’s a change in how the public is taking a look at this issue and moving towards what I believe is the best choice based on science and facts.”
UDOT says the project will cost around $550 million and will take a phased approach, implementing an enhanced busing system, tolling, building mobility hubs for public transportation and restricting single occupancy vehicles while it waits for funding.
The department will also widen Wasatch Boulevard at the bottom of the canyon, build snow sheds for avalanche mitigation and make parking and trailhead improvements.
The gondola would come with a 2,500-space parking lot near the mouth of the canyon and could bring 35 people up Little Cottonwood every two minutes, according to UDOT.