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Resolution calls for ‘least impactful’ solution for Little Cottonwood Canyon traffic. How will it impact gondola, bus proposals?

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The potential site for the base station of a proposed gondola, in the bottom center of the image between North Little Cottonwood Road and a private drive, is pictured at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The potential site for the base station of a proposed gondola, in the bottom center of the image between North Little Cottonwood Road and a private drive, is pictured at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon on June 29, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

As the Utah Department of Transportation mulls over two potential solutions for traffic-plagued Little Cottonwood Canyon, one lawmaker wants to ensure that whatever the department recommends, it has the least environmental impact.

But currently both options — an 8-mile gondola that would take the public to Snowbird or Alta, or an enhanced bus system with a widened road — don’t fit Sen. Jake Anderegg’s criteria.

Anderegg recently unveiled SJR9, a resolution supporting environmental protections for Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The resolution asks UDOT to consider three parameters — recommend the option that most preserves the watershed and aesthetics of the canyon, avoids harming Little Cottonwood’s iconic bouldering and climbing spots, and guarantees access to everyone, not just skiers at Alta and Snowbird.

UDOT is sifting through a record-breaking 13,000 public comments and likely won’t issue a recommendation until after the legislative session is over. Lawmakers will then vote to fund whatever the department recommends, meaning they have the final say.

Anderegg’s resolution doesn’t really have teeth, but he said it would send a strong message to UDOT.

“If we do a resolution that they ultimately ignore, that is not a good position for them considering we have to fund the thing,” he said.

Anderegg, who represents Lehi but grew up at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon, says the impetus for the resolution was his passion for rock climbing and hiking. Critics of the gondola say it would only prioritize the ski resorts, while climbers worry the widened road would destroy popular crags.

“I’m intimately familiar with that canyon. It really is where I grew up,” Anderegg said. “I ski, I rock climb, I hike, I camp. I use that canyon dozens of times every single year.”

Anderegg’s ideal solution to traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon would be to restrict public vehicles and install a light rail train, an idea that was considered but ultimately ruled out as UDOT narrowed its choices down to the gondola and bus system.

“The only way to truly try (a train) would be through a public-private partnership where then you would need some sort of development to help offset the costs of the infrastructure. That really is hard to pull off,” he said.

The debate over the future of Little Cottonwood Canyon is at times contentious, and it’s easy to see an anti-gondola sentiment in the canyon-adjacent neighborhoods, mainly in the form of yard signs. Several local leaders including Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and newly elected Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski have been vocal in their opposition toward the gondola.

Meanwhile Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has indicated support for the gondola, which at 8 miles would be the longest of its kind in the world.

A recent poll conducted by the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics found that public opinion among Utah voters leans away from the gondola.

Roughly 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.

Anderegg’s resolution seems to have the backing of both parties, although their interpretation of the resolution may differ.

“It’s very important to me that whatever solution UDOT selects for Little Cottonwood Canyon transportation has the least amount of impact on climbing as possible,” Snowbird General Manager Dave Fields told the Deseret News on Friday. Snowbird is a member of Gondola Works, a coalition of area businesses and stakeholders lobbying for the gondola.

“There’s no question that the gondola is the best solution for Little Cottonwood Canyon, as well as the impacts on the amazing rock climbing,” Fields said.

On the other side of the aisle, Craig Osterloh, a founding member of Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon, a nonprofit that recently sprang up in opposition to the gondola, said he applauds Anderegg’s resolution “for urging UDOT to prioritize common sense, efficient, and fiscally responsible solutions that won’t forever spoil the canyon.”

“Utah taxpayers have spoken, and legislators are listening — spending $600 million in taxes to build a gondola would be an irresponsible waste of our money. That’s why 80% of Utahns oppose a gondola.”

The gondola is estimated to cost $592 million and the bus system $510 million. Anderegg says most of his colleagues on the hill are still in a “holding pattern” until UDOT finalizes its environmental impact statement.

“I don’t think any concrete decision has been made yet, and that’s encouraging,” he said. “I think people want to be good stewards of the environment.”